I'm looking forward to the day that nanofabs make it possible for any of us to "rip, mix and burn" physical objects. In the meantime, however, more conventional fabrication techniques remain necessary for those who wish to create complex material devices. This means machine shops and tools -- the kinds of gear included in MIT's Fab Labs. But if you don't have your own machine shop, and MIT hasn't seen fit to drop a Fab Lab on your block, you have another option: the Internet.
eMachineShop will build parts for physical objects to your specifications, using a variety of standard techniques (injection molding, milling, punching, etc.). Free (in the gratis, not libre sense) CAD software walks users through the process of designing parts, and eMachineShop will manufacture the unit in whatever quantity (including one-off). A recent article about the site notes that most of the users are either making prototype parts for new designs or recreated parts for old hardware when replacements are no longer available.
And what if your new device needs some electronic smarts? Individual electronic components are relatively simple to come by, but in order to make a real prototype, the components need to be seated on a printed circuit board. You can't just wander down to Radio Shack and pick one up, however; they need to be specially crafted. Again, the Internet comes to the rescue, with a site called Bare Bones Proto PCBs. Send 'em your design, they send you your boards.
It's likely that many WorldChanging readers are right now going "so what?" A few of you, however, are already quivering in your seats, imagining what you'll make. These services make it possible for garage industrial design to take on far greater sophistication than before. The number of people with the knowledge and desire to do industrial design far outweighs the number who also have the requisite tools. These companies (along with the competitors who undoubtedly exist -- post URLs in the comments when you find them) are in many respects the design world analogues of the cheap editing software which opened up new worlds of video and musical creativity. Coming up with an innovative idea is terrific; being able to make that idea manifest, whether as a work of art or a work of design, can be worldchanging.
A highly specialized version of this has been kicking around for a few years.
Balsa Machining Service makes "semi custom" nose cones, fins, and other structural parts of model rockets. You send them a shape code, various dimensions, and a material, and they make the part for you on their compuer-controlled lathe or laser cutter:
I've turned my own balsa nose cones and such, and it is an awful mess and hard to get right. With few exceptions, I'd rather pay for BMS to do the job right.
3 PCBs for $51 from ExpressPCB (free software):
- Double-sided boards
- Plated-through holes
- No silkscreen or solder masks
- Board size must be 3.8 x 2.5 inches
- Shipped the next business day
- Fixed price: $51 (plus shipping)
Jamais, you missed one of the best of this sort of site: http://protomold.com/ . They do injection-molding, and since almost every product smaller than a car is made via injection-molding these days, no home-fab list is complete without it.