MAKER, INNOVATOR, AND COTTAGE INDUSTRIALIST DOMINIC MUREN WANTS MAKING TO BE OPEN, GLOBAL AND MODULAR. HE’S JUST LAUNCHED HIS LATEST PROJECT, ALCHEMATTER – AN ONLINE OPEN SOURCE PLATFORM THAT BREAKS DOWN AND SPELLS OUT INSTRUCTIONS ON HOW TO MAKE, WELL, ANYTHING. HE GIVES US THE INS AND OUTS OF THE SITE, COVERING EVERYTHING FROM REVERSE CROWDFUNDING TO BRICKS MADE OF EGGSHELLS AND PEE.
When you first became a Fellow in 2010, you were pretty amped about the concept of skin-skeleton-guts (SSG) manufacturing involving modular electronics — a watch could be modified into a camera, and a camera into a phone, and so on — as well as local production. You wanted to make invention on a small scale possible again.
My design lab the Humblefactory began with this idea of how could I actually be a manufacturer, because it would be fun to make stuff. And then it grew into, “How might I, as an outspoken individual, help this small-scale manufacturing movement grow?” SSG is a design framework that I am still exploring. I’m actually working on putting together a little travel laptop netbook that’s human powered.
But I’m not as single-mindedly focused on electronics anymore. Right now, the main project coming out of Humblefactory is Alchematter.org – a platform that allows makers to share open-source designs for objects. What makes it different from Thingiverse, Instructables and such sites is that what you share on Alchematter is a whole procedure for the creation of objects. Those procedures are defined in a very modular way — which allows them to be really easily remixed or adapted or searched for.
For example, Thingiverse is excellent for describing things 3D printed from plastic or things laser cut, but they basically have to be monolithic, one-off objects. It was meant for: “Here’s a 3D printed part. You want to print this part? Great.”
But what if you wanted to share a procedure for creating, say, a woven piece of cloth? Thingiverse doesn’t have a lot of functionality for instructions. You can write whatever you want, but it doesn’t tell you “Here is the pattern for the cloth, and here is the procedure for using a loom.” Those things — the pattern you follow and the procedure for the loom — are two separate pieces. If you separate those, which Alchematter does, then anytime you want to weave something, you can use the technique for the loom and all you have to switch is the pattern.
Give me an example of something I might want to go to Alchematter for.
Let’s say that you are Peter Haas or one of the other Fellows that has a non-profit that makes a thing, that wants that thing to get massively distributed. The global maker community is a cool way to do that. If you can tell them how to make the thing, then they can just make the thing. You don’t have to spend time replicating it and shipping it, and so on.
The problem with that is the raw materials and the skills and the tools and everything that are available in any one locality are very different from one another. How could you know how to adapt a technique for making a stove, for example?
Let’s say that your non-profit had successfully launched stoves in Rwanda, and you decided, “This is great, we’re going to do it for Bolivia also.” Those are two different places, and it will cost you a lot of money to do the on-the-ground research or partner with an organization. Alchematter lets makers share information about what they’re capable of in Bolivia, building up a knowledge base of what materials are available, what tools are available, even what makers are available — in other words, who are the people who have made projects that look like your stove? And then you can just get on it and say, awesome, here are some of the ways we could tweak it. Here are some of the people we need to get in touch with. These are the materials we might use.
So you’re offering instructions from one place and allowing people with resources, tools, and materials in another place to adapt them.
Yes. The fundamental idea is to separate the description of the object from the restrictions imposed by reality — either because of skills, tools or materials — and to allow much more easy adaptation of designs for things to your local situation.
Another cool thing is that Alchematter modularizes stuff. Again, let’s think about the stove. Let’s say that, in most places, those stoves tend to be made from some kind of factory brick. Let’s say that you wanted to make these stoves in a place that had very low fuel availability, and you wanted to make some kind of method for making a fireproof refractory, so that you didn’t have to fire it — or maybe you had to use a lot less fuel than normal, which would lower the price of the stove.
But this is tricky. How do you do that? There are some methods — for example, there’s this woman who makes bricks out of bacteria and urea, of all things. You can basically pee in a jug, feed it to this bacteria, and its adds urease, an enzyme that breaks down the urea, using that energy to precipitate a calcium ion out of a solution. This makes a marble-like substance.
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