For me, that’s not a rhetorical question, because right now I’m staring at my own personal fabricator. It’s eMachineShop, an application that produces a physical 3-D copy of almost anything I draw. “You know the machine on Star Trek? The replicator? That’s what I was aiming for,” says Jim Lewis, the guy who created this tool.
The concept is simple: Boot up your computer and design whatever object you can imagine, press a button to send the CAD file to Lewis’ headquarters in New Jersey, and two or three weeks later he’ll FedEx you the physical object. Lewis launched eMachineShop a year and a half ago, and customers are using his service to create engine-block parts for hot rods, gears for home-brew robots, telescope mounts – even special soles for tap dance shoes. “Designing stuff used to be just for experts,” Lewis says. “We’re bringing it to the masses.”
I’m going to test that claim. I have no experience in design and can barely draw a convincing stick figure. If I can manage to engineer a product, then he’s right: Any idiot can do it.
I launch eMachineShop’s software and stare at the blank screen. What to make? I consider and discard several ideas. I’d love to create a tricked-out mobile phone, but after doing some research, I realize that installing the electronics are beyond my ken. A futuristic MP3 player would be easier – but too obvious. Then it hits me: Ever since I began playing electric guitar as a teen, I’ve wondered what it would be like to make my own instrument.
I begin tentatively sketching shapes, using eMachineShop’s box drawing tool to sketch some chunky outlines. Unfortunately, boxy edges make for a rather dorky-looking guitar; everything I’m producing seems like it was designed with a hatchet. I poke around for another hour, with equally ungainly results.
Finally, I stumble upon a tool in the software that lets me draw swooping, Stradivarius-like curves. This is more like it! In a flurry of creativity, I dash off a dozen concepts, stunned at how easy it suddenly is. I remix various classic guitar designs by drawing the outlines of famous models, like the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul, then stretching and skewing their outlines to make my own mutations. As I finish each concept, I click a button and up pops a lifelike 3-D view of my design. I spin it around to view it from all angles. Seeing a virtual version of each creation floating in space is very cool. I quickly discover that amateur engineering gives me the same rush as playing a round of Halo. I even lose track of time, obsessively tweaking and refining my guitars until I look up and realize it’s way past midnight.
After a week of experimentation, I settle upon my favorite – a curvy, amoeba-like adaptation of a Flying V guitar. I had originally hoped to have it cut out of pine, like a normal guitar body, but when I explore the options for materials, I find that eMachineShop doesn’t stock wood thick enough. The software offers me several possibilities, and each time I swap in a new material, it reprices the entire job, down to the penny. In the end, I opt to have a 3-D milling machine carve my design out of a single block of clear acrylic, with unbuffed raw aluminum for the faceplate. A guitar made of metal and Lucite: This is going to look like something beamed down from a UFO. It’ll cost $880 for the two parts and take about a week to make them. Then all I have to do is snap them together and bolt on the neck, bridge, and a few electric components.
At 2 in the morning on a Tuesday, I finally hit the Place Order button. My design shoots off to Lewis’ farm of roboticized fabrication machines.
I’ve just printed a guitar.
By Clive Thompson