Marco Perry is co-founder of PENSA, a New York consultancy that designs and improves products. It wouldn’t be too far off to say that innovation is his business. A short while ago Pensa designed, demonstrated and then open sourced an automatic wire forming printer. In case you aren’t familiar with it, here’s an overview:
The DIWire has attracted a lot of attention and Pensa is even planning on unveiling an improved version at the 2012 Maker Faire. Openalia sat down with Mr. Perry for a quick discussion of the DIWire specifically, and open source hardware in general.
Perry: Originally we were working on designing a chair and we didn’t have a good way to produce the models. We thought up a wire forming printer as a tool for quickly defining a shape with a lot of empty space, like a chair. Of course the project was finished long before the DIWire was available, but it still seemed like a good idea. We use rapid prototyping a lot at Pensa, but the existing technology can’t produce lines in space. There’s a big hole that the DIWire could fill.
The DIWire is similar in concept to a 3D printer. One of the biggest hurdles in using a 3D printer is the limitation on how steep an overhang can be before the design isn’t printable. Does a wire printer have a similar restriction on what it can produce?
Perry: It does, but it isn’t as predictable as the overhang issue. Sometimes as a part curls back on itself the wire will fold in such a way that it runs into a part of the machine. If you’re standing next to the printer you can guide the wire around the machine so it doesn’t get caught. Also, if the part has too much mass it will start to deform as it pulls itself towards the ground. We are working on making the next generation stronger and more accurate.
How does this project fit into Pensa’s existing strategy?
Perry: The DIWire is very exploratory. Normally Pensa designs products for other companies and doesn’t produce anything in-house. I suppose if there’s enough interest we would look into selling the DIWire either as a kit or an assembled machine. So far very few people have expressed interest in building a kit, let alone cloning it from the design files. Most people (99%) want to buy it so they can use it to make something specific.
Obviously it costs something to prototype the DIWire; even if you already had all the parts and tools it would be taking time away from other things. Why pursue a project that is so different from what Pensa usually does?
Perry: It isn’t so different. The DIWire is an experiment and Pensa is an experimental company. Designing new and innovative solutions to problems is what we focus on doing every day. Most companies don’t make much room for experimentation, so they would never be able to justify pursuing something like this. Plus, they tend to answer to more stakeholders, so they accept much less risk. When you own the company you don’t have to jump over very many hurdles to invest in a project. We have an existing structure to handle experiments, so it isn’t that much of a departure from the norm.
If the DIWire is a success that means lots of people will be using it. Did Pensa investigate the legal structure around the project, like liability issues if someone gets hurt?
Perry: Absolutely. We started asking around and all the open source guys in NY said that it’s not as simple as as just putting it out there for free. I called my lawyer and had a long talk about the liability implications. The Creative Commons and GPL licenses already cover the high points like how there’s no warranty and everything’s simply “as-is.” If you have something to lose then you have to think carefully about what you put out there, because we live in a litigious society, but it’s not really a new situation. It is interesting that I had to pay my lawyer for advice on releasing an open source project. It takes a lot of money to give something away for free.
Do you see a distinction between the age-old practice of putting things in the public domain, like designs for a birdhouse, and the seemingly more modern attempt to use licenses to require sharing? It seems to kind of flip the legal structure on its head; rather than simply trust that others will share, or use the law to restrict access, the law is used to guarantee access.
Perry: In some ways there’s a distinction. I think it encourages trust and reciprocity in the community. However, the actual application might not be all that different. If a person uses the stuff you put out there for free in other than the way you would want them to use it, well, there probably isn’t much you can or would do about it. Just chalk it up to bad karma. A big company probably wouldn’t bother because they would rather just avoid the risk. If a big company did violate the license you might consider taking them to court, but that would probably only make sense if you were trying to collect damages from them.
Open source isn’t exactly a new idea, but arguably its application to wrenches-and-gears hardware is. Do you think open source technology is inherently different from the alternative and, if so, which is better?
Perry: I don’t think there’s much of a difference in terms of how the customer uses it. Very few people are actually hacking on stuff. Just look at Firefox; how many people use it verses how many people contribute anything to its development? For the vast majority of users, the fact that it’s open source is irrelevant. Hardware is different in that it costs a lot more money to build and reproduce atoms than bits. It’s usually cheaper to buy hardware from someone who specializes in making a lot of it; economies of scale decrease unit costs. If you build it yourself you can’t spread out the cost of scrap, tools or expertise. Plus it will probably take you a lot longer. A lot of people in the open source world seem to think that every home will have an open source 3D printer, or whatever. I’m not so sure. Most people don’t fix things themselves, let alone build anything. I doubt the presence of a tool isn’t going to magically turn people into Makers. I am interested in the effect that open source stuff could have on the developing world. They could get more use out of being able to build and adapt their own things.
Speaking of which, have you used the DIWire for any of the stuff you thought you would use it for?
Perry: I guess not. For the original project we just used the tools we already had available. We have been getting a lot of interest from people who think they might be able to use it for some specific thing they do. For example, dentists already have three dimensional files of their patients teeth, but they have to shape the wire for braces by hand.
Where is it going from here?
Perry: We don’t know where it’s going to end up. The next generation of prototype will have more software support and then we’ll see where the community pushes it. We want to make it very easy to use so that all you have to do is hit “print” and your file comes out. Unlike, say, a CNC machine that requires you to get a lot of training and experience before you can be confident of not cutting your own machine in half or something.
And the next milestone the community can look forward to?
Perry: We definitely have milestones; without them nothing would ever get done. Our next will be to show the second generation DIWire at the upcoming Maker Faire. We’ll probably have the one prototype…all the parts just came in so we can start putting it together.