The vacuum-powered paper molding process.

The vacuum-powered paper molding process.

Paper pulp was pulled onto the molds using a shop vac.

Paper pulp was pulled onto the molds using a shop vac.

Paper pulp was pulled onto the molds using a shop vac.

The end result: durable, stackable boxes.

2012-04-18

Co.Exist

Alchematter: A Wikipedia For People Who Make Things

Want to make your own pants? The site will have instructions for that. And also how to make your own sewing machine. It aims to be a repository of instructions on how to make everything, and change how we think about where our stuff comes from.

When industrial designers think about ways to make products more sustainable, they often focus on small tweaks: removing BPA from plastic, or making a product that’s slightly less toxic than previous iterations. But these are bandaids on the larger problem: materials that aren’t biodegradable and that are mass-produced in central locations (so supply chains can be easily disrupted).

When Dominic Muren, a former toy designer, started the Humblefactory design laboratory, he decided to address systemic supply chain issues. "What if instead we thought about the way slow food thinks about food? Slow food isn’t trying to be a healthy alternative to a TV dinner," he explains. "It’s asking people to completely reexamine the way food gets delivered to them in a local context."

Humblefactory has worked on a variety of projects, including a skin-based method to hold assemblies of objects together and a way to use waste paper to make durable 3-D objects (the vacuum-powered molding process can be seen in the slide show above). But Muren’s latest is his most ambitious. Alchematter, a site that will launch in closed alpha this summer, will be a crowdsourced guide to making things from scratch—or, if you like, a Wikipedia for makers.

Says Muren: "We don’t have a good place to have conversations on what’s possible to make on a small scale in your local community and how you do that making. There’s Instructables and Make:Projects and a couple of websites that allow you to share instructions, but nothing that allows you to share the whole chain from the ground up."

A sample project on Alchematter might contain instructions for making a sweater. But it won’t stop there: There could be variations on a single procedural step that change the pattern, or even instructions on how to make a knitting machine that creates the sweater for you. The sweater instructions could also be embedded into a larger project, like a knit cushion that goes on a couch.

Muren is also excited about the prospect of DIY bioengineering projects being included on the site (see this video on how to make DIY antidepressant yogurt to see what he means). "There’s little small-scale support infrastructure," he says.

Each project can be adapted to a local context by contributors. In New York, makers might have the cash to buy tools from McMaster Carr, a massive industrial supply company. In Detroit, makers might not have the funds for that—but they may have access to scrap, because they live in a place where industry is in decline. A savvy contributor could make a note on a project for locals living in places that have an excess of trashed microwaves: Go find a dead microwave and take a particular chunk out of it to use in XYZ project.

"The reality of small-scale making is that there are a lot of different situations," says Muren. "It’s not just you either live in New York and you’re a hobbyist or you live in rural Ghana and you’re a farmer with nothing."

By the time the public gets to play with Alchematter, there will probably be plenty of projects to look through. Humblefactory is teaming up with Open Source Ecology, an organization working on a toolkit containing 50 components that can build a civilization from scratch (we’ll believe it when we see it) for the closed alpha. "They’re missing a good way of sharing these designs," says Muren.

Add New Comment

5 Comments

  • Dr04bps

    Also – please forgive the lack of capitalization on Detroit and the lack of possessiveness on author’s.
    Wouldn’t want anyone to think along with our inability to maintain a formidable industrial presence , we also fail to educate appropriately.
    Apparently passion and grammar check are mutually exclusive here in the rust belt.

  • Dr04bps

    Wow

    There are a number of things about this sight that I love and hate.  As a detroiter, add "this authors lack of sensitivity" to the not liked side.

  • Dominic Muren

     I definitely meant no disrespect to Detroit or any other post-industrial American City (I'm a former resident of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and loved both). I do like to use these examples because I think that people assume that an open-manufacturing project is only going to be valuable to hobbyists in the suburbs, affluent hipsters in Brooklyn, or poor people in the developing world -- this is simply not the case.

    The truth is, nobody in our globalized economy really has their needs optimally met -- either because they don't have enough buying power, or because they can afford lots of objects which are cheap because they are mass produced and therefore generic. Even the wealthiest of the wealthy are still limited by the options dreamed up by inventors within the market -- and a globally distributed think tank like Alchematter can only help this diversity.

  • Ariel Schwartz

    The Detroit example came directly from Dominic Muren--and I'm not sure why suggesting that people advantage of local resources is insensitive. 

  • will

     Wow, that's all you got out of the article Dr04bps?  Perhaps the part about not having the resources was a little unthoughtful, but I don't think it's debatable that Detroit is in industrial decline and is probably a great place to take advantage of industrial scraps.

    Down here in Houston, particularly in the 5th Ward area, the industrial decline has been taken advantage of and has become home to a sort of farm-belt.  Check out urbanharvest.org for a positive way to look at overcoming challenging areas of industrial decline.  Which is what I think the point of the author's was.  If we aren't honest with where we are, and what resources we have in various places, how are we to accurately assess and figure out what the best direction is to take?  I know that I don't have the money for a $80k skid steer, and when I saw that OpenSourceEcology has plans to use local reusable parts in a rural area where I come from where we don't have huge industrial means at a fraction of the cost, I didn't get offended, I got excited.  Think about the tons of unused scrap "junk" laying around Detroit or any metropolis in decline that can be gotten for near free, or even free.  Think about the awesome uniqueness of that situation and then spread the word 8-).

    There's a group called The Urban Farming Guys in Kansas City who have a similar situation where low urban lot prices are taken advantage of to create a similar endeavor.

    I was first introduced to open-source hardware through Open Source Ecology, and seeing them team up with Alchematter is very inspiring.  I am very grateful for this article and am very glad this information is getting out.  My wife and I are starting a sustainable community on 5.5 acres in Texas and it's the sharing of fabrication information like this that will enable us to grow exponentially as opposed to requiring capital outlays we may not be able to afford to buy equipment directly from manufacturers.  This is also an excellent opportunity to bring back manufacturing to the U.S.  Even though these designs are open source, they can be built and sold locally, providing jobs, self-sufficiency, and independence.