Artisanal Electronics

A thesis on digital fabrication and electronic products

SketchChair and Melody Man on KickStarter.

Posted on | March 28, 2011 | No Comments

This weekend, I noticed that a couple of great projects are on KickStarter: SketchChair and Melody Man. SketchChair is a software tool for designing custom chairs that can be laser-cut, CNC routed, or otherwise fabricated. Melody Man is a designer toy with a hand crank, LED animations, and music. They’re both closely related to the topic of my thesis: SketchChair because of the close connection between the digital design and the object; Melody Man as an example of an artisanal electronic product.

Both projects have optimistic funding targets ($18,000 and $19,050 respectively), so you should go back them now!

The Toaster Project

Posted on | March 2, 2011 | No Comments

The Toaster Project is an attempt by Thomas Thwaites to build a toaster from scratch, including mining and refining the necessary metals. Includes interesting reflections on just how much infrastructure and work goes into the creation of a simple product.

Image as source: breadboard Arduino-compatible from oomlout

Posted on | February 14, 2011 | No Comments

(BBAC) Breadboard Arduino Compatible Micro-Controller

How simple can the source code for an object be? Could an image count, with printing as the fabrication process? The example shown above is a template that fits a standard solderless breadboard and indicates the locations into which to insert the electronic components that compose the device. It’s the Breadboard Arduino-Compatible kit from oomlout, a simple microcontroller setup. Although the template is simply an image on a piece of paper, the standardization of the necessary components makes the assembly process quick and straightforward. Together with an accessible method for procuring the parts, the template provides everything needed to produce the final device, making a compelling case for considering it as the source code for an physical object.

The Economist on 3D printing.

Posted on | February 14, 2011 | No Comments

The Economist has a cover story on 3D printing this week, as well as a longer briefing on the topic. They mention the work of Peter Schmitt, a PhD student here at the Media Lab, as well as Neri Oxman, a professor here and one of my thesis readers. The article is quite insightful regarding the potential of the technology; here’s a particularly nice quote:

By reducing the barriers to entry for manufacturing, 3D printing should also promote innovation. If you can design a shape on a computer, you can turn it into an object. You can print a dozen, see if there is a market for them, and print 50 more if there is, modifying the design using feedback from early users. This will be a boon to inventors and start-ups, because trying out new products will become less risky and expensive. And just as open-source programmers collaborate by sharing software code, engineers are already starting to collaborate on open-source designs for objects and hardware.

It’s good to see this topic getting such impressive mainstream press.

Fab Speakers finished and plans available.

Posted on | February 8, 2011 | No Comments

Completed pair of the fab speakers

The Fab Speakers (which still need a better name) are now online. You can see a completed pair above and the website contains all the files needed to make your own. I hope to do a workshop in which novices to electronics and fabrication can build their own pair of speakers. The simplicity of the design, will, I hope, make it a good introduction to the relevant skills.

Just Buy This One and the aesthetics of consumer electronics.

Posted on | December 27, 2010 | No Comments


Just Buy This One is a website that aggregates reviews from reevoo to provides recommendations for the best product in a number of high-level categories like cameras and laptops. The careful selection and high-quality images offer an excellent opportunity for examining the appearance of popular electronic products. Almost all of the products appear to be plastic, with some metal bits. There’s just a single instance of wood (the high-end radio) and I didn’t see any fabric at all. The products with the most complex functionality (the printers, laptops, cameras, TVs, and DVD players) are the most uniform; a vacuum cleaner offers the only unexpected appearance.

Shown above are the televisions; see more photos in my Flickr set.

Via Hacker News

What is it I’m trying to do?

Posted on | December 27, 2010 | No Comments

This thesis addresses the lack of diversity in consumer electronic products. In contrast to the variation found in furniture, clothing, and other areas, most electronics use similar materials, aesthetics, production processes, and business models. In particular, the cases or enclosures for electronic devices tend be made from molded plastic, a process which has high up-front tooling costs and therefore favors mass production and standardization. My thesis explores the possibilities for the use of digital fabrication machines (e.g. laser cutters and 3D printers) in the production of consumer electronic products and its implications for the designs of the objects, the possibilities for customization, and the associated production and business models. Through case studies, I explore the unique possibilities and constraints of various fabrication machines and processes and attempt to derive general lessons and best practices.

CookieCutter-Editor: a simple interface for 3D design of particular objects.

Posted on | December 17, 2010 | No Comments

How To Make A Cookie Cutter from Nikolaus Gradwohl on Vimeo.

The CookieCutter-Editor is a Processing program for designing cookie cutters, which are converted to .stl format for 3D printing. This is a great example of a custom design tool for a particular class of objects. The interface is simple, but the results functional. And it’s open-source! Download the application and source code from the CookieCutter-Editor page.

Via ponoko.

Repurposed enclosures: recycling existing objects for electronic products

Posted on | December 9, 2010 | No Comments

Mint Tin Amp and Speaker by ampoids

Although my thesis is particularly focused on digital fabrication as a method for producing cases for electronic products, it’s not the only option. One common alternative is the repurposing of existing objects. Altoids tins are a prime example. This yields an attractive, robust enclosure, although it tends to emphasize a particular aesthetic.

MintyBoost USB charger by Adafruit

Dematerializing Modularity: replacing physical building blocks with software tools.

Posted on | December 9, 2010 | No Comments

Listening to Peter Schmitt’s PhD proposal presentation, I was struck by what seems to be a general trend in construction kits: replacing physical building blocks with software tools. Peter is interested in the construction of kinetic objects: replacing today’s hobby servos with more flexible processes. I’d like to help people design consumer electronic products from digital building blocks, enabling the final objects to be made using standard electronics components with digitally fabricated materials.

In general, I see at least three overall advantages to this approach (software design tools) versus more traditional construction kits (physical building blocks):

  • lower costs: the use of more fundamental components means that people don’t need to pay extra for pre-assembled modules
  • increased flexibility: because the elements are smaller and perform more limited functions, they can be combined in more ways
  • easier sharing: since the design is created in a digital tool, it can be shared online for others to study or modify

Of course, the creation of these software tools is a task in itself, requiring time and attention. Again, though, its digital nature makes it easier for others to use and build upon, yielding a potentially increased leverage versus physical building blocks.

keep looking »


Chronicling the master's thesis of David A. Mellis, a student in the High-Low Tech group at the MIT Media Lab.


3D Printed Mouse >>

Fab Speakers >>

Fab FM >>