3-D printers have been established as the Cool Hobby Toy of the Year, as long as the thing you want to prototype is plastic (or, soon, metal). But that wasn’t enough for four hobbyist makers in Massachusetts, so they built a box to 3-D-print, bevel, edge, and cut all manner of materials for your dream desktop project.
That project quickly turned into The Microfactory, a fully fledged miniature production facility that fits on a desktop. It uses four print heads with two independently controlled heaters, meaning it can print in four colors at once OR print simultaneously with two different materials.
The “machine shop in a box” is more than just prototyping. A central drill lets users mill and etch plastics, metals, and wood, meaning that you can mix machining and printing. For example, a framework can be cut out of the wood and metal and inlaid with printed plastic. In the video above, they demonstrated the milling and etching of a microchip. I’ll let your imaginations run away with one that for a second.
The Microfactory fits on a desk and the drill- and print-space is sealed inside a clear door, reducing mess (it also has a shopvac port on the side to keep the interior workspace clean). The door also decreases the Microfactory’s noise level by 10 decibels, while solid plastic and metal covers keep wandering fingers safe from whizzing pulleys and hot motors. A magnetic sensor on the door stops processes when it’s opened, and a big red panic button does exactly what you’d expect.
The real potential of the Microfactory is that engineers can take it far beyond the fabrication lab. Hook it up to a generator and it’ll run anywhere, allowing you to perform on-the-road repairs and prints. And don’t worry about packing the thing in styrofoam peanuts: While it’s currently set up to be programmed via a computer hookup, the Microfactory is connected to the Internet, allowing it to be controlled via a mobile device or even the frontside USB port. Jeremy Fryer-Biggs, one of the founders of Mebotics, the company that created the Microfactory, explains it this way:
If you had a database of parts for your Humvee you could connect the machine to a Wi-Fi hotspot, download the part you need from a directory, and make it on the fly out in the middle of nowhere."
Above all, these four hobbyists want their machines to be affordable, but to do so, they need your help. The Kickstarter for a bigger, badder version of this prototype, capable of milling steel, should launch in the next 30-60 days.
So if you’re tickled by the concept of desktop production but know that the one-trick desktop 3-D printers you can buy on Amazon aren’t going to cut the mustard for your mad experiments, sign up for updates on MEbotics’ transformative, portable machines.