The move towards DIY digital fabrication—from MakerBot to Fab@Home—is an undoubtedly great development for consumers. But one thing it’s missing is a standard system for modeling and exchanging components. If 10 people upload a design for a replacement bolt for a chair, odds are you’ll get 10 slightly different designs. While the world has the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) devoted to regulating specifications, tolerances, and standards of consumer goods, the digital fabrication community is fractured when it comes to a universal standard.
Enter OpenStructures, a Belgian project that aims to establish a standard grid for developing and sharing models. OpenStructures is “a modular construction model, where everyone designs for everyone on the basis of one shared geometrical grid,” the OS team explains. “It initiates a kind of collaborative Meccano [an English Erector Set—eds.] to which everybody can contribute parts, components and structures.” Simply put, OS offers a universal language for people who design and fabricate objects, ultimately leading to a cleaner, faster user experience.
As part of the recent Istanbul Bienal, curator Joseph Grima invited the OpenStructures team to show some of the objects built with OS parts in the (brilliantly named) exhibit Adhocracy. For their contribution, OpenStructures invited a cast of young designers to build domestic appliances—from toasters to kids’ toys—using their system. Antwerp fabrication studio Unfold built a ceramic water filter made from OS parts using a glass bottle and a ceramic 3-D printed filter. The group also contributed an elegant wood and glass coffee bean grinder.
Dutch designers Jesse Howard and Thomas Lommée developed a component system called TransparentTools that can be used to build a bevy of kitchen appliances, like toasters, electric kettles, and even small vacuum cleaners. Consumers typically treat these objects as disposable, since repair can be complex and expensive, so the system offers a set of components that can be easily replaced. “Coffee makers and water boilers are relatively simple machines, yet their workings are typically inaccessible to the user,” they explain. “Repair or even recycling becomes impossible: Once the product ceases to function, it is rendered disposable.” Using their simple hardware library, users can build their own spare parts, ending the perennial cycle of buying and trashing appliances.
The most whimsical objects on view were children’s toys built with the BlocBox, an OS component that’s typically used to form the body of a rigid suitcase or shipping container. Instead, the OS team split several BlocBoxes into quarters and let designers re-imagine their intended use. Tristan Kopp and Ricardo Carneiro used half of a box as a seat on a kid-sized digger. Artin Aharon and Thomas Lommée built an elegant wood toboggan with Eames-inspired metal-and-wood legs. Christiane Hoegner hung part of a box from a woven string net, creating a swing.
Personal fabrication is undergoing a transformation that roughly parallels the evolution of the early Internet, which also emerged from a community of enthusiasts who took active roles in its growth and construction. As we watch "fab at home" migrate from the rarefied world of the expert into the mainstream, it’s natural to wonder whether it will challenge the traditional role of the designer. But rather than designing their own products, OpenStructures imagines a future where consumers are, as Howard says, "actively involved in producing, repairing, and modifying their own products" using a kit of parts developed by a designer. Which suggests that in this democratized landscape, there’s still plenty of demand for the expert.