Neurobiologist Ted Hall was happily working at his lab at Duke and making boats on the side when he kind of fell into starting one of the most well-known affordable, consumer Computer Numerical Control (CNC) companies in the US. To fuel his amateur boat-building, he developed crude DOS software that helped guide his form-making… except, that in order to create precise forms that actually fit together properly and precisely every time, he knew that he needed something more sophisticated.
The ShopBot PRSAlpha 24
He was aware that there were CNC tools (previously called “NC” before the word “computer” was added) out there that would help him make his boat forms much more easily, but was frustrated with the lack of accessibility for the average person. He thought, “who could afford to pay tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars for that kind of equipment? This is just a giant plotter that moves a router around. You ought to be able to make one of these fairly inexpensively.” And that’s exactly what he did. He started out selling the plans (online using Compuserve!), then people began asking for kits, so he built kits. Finally, people were requesting that he send them an almost-assembled piece… which then became ShopBot.
By that time, Ted was working two full-time jobs, and had to make a decision. He chose to try something new and take a risk with ShopBot. Little did he know that he was on the cusp of the digital fabrication revolution, and ShopBot was just what the industry needed. Ted partnered with Bill Young and together, with a great team, they’ve built the North Carolina-based ShopBot, which offers digital fabrication tools for as little as $5,000 that you can keep and use right in your garage at home (and now, even on your “desktop“!). And although Ted doesn’t really make boats on the side anymore, just think how many boats he helped people make over the 16 years that ShopBot has been in business.
A ShopBot fit for your desktop!
From regular hobbyists, wood workers and cabinet builders, to sign makers and commercial and educational organizations, ShopBot’s customers are just about anyone. Ted says that he’s very excited about all the new digital fabrication tools including 3D printing but that it still has a long way to go: “Take a look around the room you’re in right now there’s hardly anything in it that you can 3D print and have a usable version, but I would imagine that everything you’re looking at could be subtractively printed from real materials using CNC technology and be usable and attractive… The kind of tool that could create the stuff of everyday life that people really need — furniture, housing, etc. … you can get an affordable CNC tools that can actually make it.”
Free downloadable plans for a patio chair from the ShopBot website
Watch as a ShopBot owner makes a triple bunk bed that essentially snaps together:
I talked to Ted in more detail about CNC technology:
How has CNC technology changed since the beginning of ShopBot? What’s better/faster/different about the technology?
The PC (and continuous improvement in microprocessor technology) makes what were originally just “NC” (numerically controlled) tools for industrial automation much more capable of easy creative work in a way that allows individuals and small shops able to do the same sort of fabrication as large operations. Because the PC and other improvements in digital technology make the tools more agile and affordable, it also means they are great for making just one, as well as many of an item, items that may require highly precise cutting, drilling, machining, or sculpting. CNC tools, which we think of as “subtractive digital fabrication” tools are being democratized as they now allow almost anyone to make almost anything. Like “additive digital fabrication tools” (also known as 3D printers), subtractive tools are starting to attract the attention of creative people. The main difference between the subtractive and additive digital fab, is that at present, only affordable subtractive tools can work in a variety of materials, across a wide range of sizes, and in efficient time windows. It is with subtractive digital fabrication that modern designers are now free to explore their imagination in making the real stuff of everyday life.
What is the difference between ShopBot CNC machines and other commercially-available CNC machines?
ShopBot has been the innovation leader in creating digital fabrication tools for use by individuals and small shops. Much like the difference between main frame computers, that are oriented to use by enterprises and require engineers and technical staff, and PC’s that are oriented for use by individuals – ShopBots are tools that people can work with. They are oriented to an individual’s work, are affordable, and do not require a crew of technical support. Over the years, several other CNC tools have emulated ShopBot’s approach… and these we applaud for recognizing the amazing power of the technology when put in peoples hands.
What new developments in technology has helped the ShopBot business deliver better quality and faster products?
As noted above, continued improvements in the PCs make it possible to accomplish the same type of production done by a $100K-$200K CNC machine with an affordable tool that fits the needs of individuals or small shops. Improvements in (CAD) design software and increasing affordability (Autodesk’s 123D, Sketchup, Rhino) make it possible for the work of individual designers to fully integrate the digital fabrication process, from conceptualization and prototyping to digital fab production.
Architectural detail created using a ShopBot router
Gear created using a ShopBot router
Any new developments you see coming to the CNC industry in the near future?
- The translation of digital models (the designs) to the final, digitally fabricated product will get easier as CAD/CAM software gets closer to “click to print”. This is already happening in apps such as those of 123D and will allow more and more people to be involved in designing and making.
- The border between additive fab, subtractive fab, and assembly fab will blur as increasingly digital fab tools will combine this functionality. For example, we will release a tool later this summer that does both additive and subtractive on the same tool.
- Additive technology will appear to change the most over coming years as new materials make new kinds of “printing” possible (if you haven’t read it, you should check out Neil Gershenfeld’s FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop or listen to one of his Ted talks). But subtractive fab will continue to evolve because increasing microprocessor power makes new kinds of cutting and machining possible.
A ShopBot makes a car
ShopBot head detail
Besides CNC, what amazes you about what your technology can do that you would have thought impossible just a few years ago?
I don’t think when we started it was as clear as it is now, that digital fabrication would enable whole new processes for production and manufacturing. Or, that in doing so, it would create new opportunities to return an appealing kind of manufacturing to our communities in the form of local distributed manufacturing. This can bring back the kinds of jobs and work that people want, while providing consumers and customers with attractive, customized or personalized products, and products made from regionally available materials in environmentally friendly was. Our 100kGarages.com is an attempt by ShopBot to help seed this evolving “locafab” movement. 100kgarages.com is a new online community that connects people who need help designing or creating things with designers and makers (“fabbers”) who can help.
The MoMa yourHouse via seaside5592 on Flickr
What was one of the coolest projects you’ve worked on?
We cut a house that was assembled outside the New Orleans Museum of Modern Art a few summers ago. Every single part in it was cut by ShopBot and it went together like a puzzle by people with no construction background. The only tool used in assembly was a rubber mallet. It was a pretty amazing structure.
With support from our partner, Intel, we’re exploring the offices, desks and tools that unleash the creativity and productivity of today’s designers. Intel is committed to improving our lives with fast, light, wireless (and stylish!) technology. Their goal is to develop tools that help us create amazing things. And we think that’s amazing.