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A digital fabricator is a machine which is capable of converting digital data into three-dimensional objects. Digital fabrication has a number of potentially far-reaching applications, ranging from making prototypes of various items to manufacturing needed household goods at home from plans stored in the fabricator. They come in an array of shapes and sizes and work in several different ways. Fans of digital fabricators often refer to them as the wave of the future, referencing the popular appearance of similar devices in science fiction.
These machines are sometimes referred to as rapid prototyping machines, 3D printers, or fabbers. They can work in one of three ways. Some fabbers carve blocks of material such as foam or plastic, typically with lasers. Others work through a process known as deposition, in which layers of material are slowly built up to create the desired object. Other press or mold, using malleable materials and molding them as needed.
Data can be entered into a digital fabricator with a variety of tools. Some fabricators are capable of scanning items and then duplicating them, generating a digital record of the process along the way so that this data can be entered into another digital fabricator, if desired. Others work with digital fabrication programs, computer programs which allow people to create templates for the items they want to make, and then manufacture them with a fabricator. Using such a program, people can design anything from a lampshade to a robot, and the fabricator can generate it.
These machines are highly useful for the production of limited lots of particular products, or for on-demand generation of a product. This can be convenient for a small company with limited capital. Although the initial outlay for a digital fabricator can be quite high, it is not necessary to maintain a working factory which produces huge volumes of inventory at once, and this cuts down on operating costs. Digital fabricators can also be used to make unique editions of objects, including works of art.
The price of a serious digital fabricator is out of the reach of many consumers. It is possible, however, to build a fabricator for home use with a little knowledge and assistance from other people who have made or worked with digital fabricators. Industrial machines capable of large-scale projects can be quite costly, but capable of producing things like prototype models for car bodies, demonstrating the size and complexity which these machines can reach.