Mar. 5, 2015 | By Kira

Rapid-prototyping is a key advantage of 3D printing, allowing designers and engineers to quickly build and test multiple iterations of an object without wasting time or materials. But what about rapidly-prototyping machines that rapid-prototype? It’s not just a tongue-twister—the Modular Machines that Make project ([m]MTM) has released a low-cost and entirely modular hardware, modular electronic and modular software framework that will make machine prototyping streamlined, cheap, and easy.

A collaboration between the Machines that Make Project and Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusettes Insitute of Technology, [m]MTM is composed of three main components: the modular machine parts, Gestalt node and the Gestalt framework. The approach taken is “that of a software-based virtual machine controlling a physical machine” to allow for increased modularity and give indivisuals the ability to “create new automated tools, and thus to self-extend their abilities to create objects which would be too tedious or impossible to create by hand.”

The machine parts are entirely modular and each have one axis of motion (they are available in either linear stage or rotary stage pieces). This means that they can be connected together is various configurations to produce different types of machines for specific purposes. What is particularly impressive about the modular machine parts is that they are built from 0.15mm cardboard—the same kind trifold presentation board used by highschool students at sciencefairs around the world. “Cardboard is a great material for maching prototyping because you can cut, glue, tape, laminate, slice and fold with ease,” say the project developers. “Since the material is cheap, iteration is a breeze!”

The software component is known as Gestalt, a modular control system framework for personal fabrication that is available to download via GitHub. Gestalt, by the way, is defined as “an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts,” an accurate name for this particular project.

Using the Gestalt modular software framework enables users to import their machines as Python modules and makes it easy to connect machines to browser-based user interfaces. The project is fully integrated and designed so that Gestalt framework users can program their Gestalt nodes (small electronic control boards that connect to your computer via Fabnet USB and an AVR programmer) and even connect multiple Gestalt nodes together with additional cables.

An important and very unique aspect of this framework is that it does not rely on G-code, the most widely used numerical control programming language in computer-aided manufacturing (including additive methods such as 3D printing). By providing an alternative, the [m]MTM project could open itself up to an entirely new audience of non-G-code users, however they also risk alienating themselves from the already-established g-code user base; only time will tell whether their strategy will pay off.

The project is a collaboration between James Coleman and Nadya Peek contributions from Ilan Moyer, Rebecca Li, Lin Pease and Elena Byun, and is a part of the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, “an interdisciplinary initiative exploring the boundary between computer science and physical science.”

Although the software still requires some advanced technical know-how, the Modular Machines that Make Machines project is a low-cost and accessible solution for individuals interested in digital fabrication and rapidly-prototyping personal-use machines, such as 3D printers and desktop milling machines. To learn more about the project and for detailed, step-by-step instructions and images, be sure to check out the [m]MTM homepage.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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