A 3-D Printing Lab That Fits Into A Suitcase

PopFab is a briefcase-sized lab that can mill, cut, print, and draw. Also, the TSA is totally cool with it.

“Our dream is to empower yours.” In any other context, the message printed on Ilan Moyer’s business card would read as cliché. But in Moyer’s case, it’s simply the truth. The recent MIT graduate is the founder of “personal fabrication” startup CTMTM, where he is developing inexpensive and portable fabrication tools aimed at helping people manufacture objects in their own homes. Like a foam core 3-D printer, for example, which can even print ketchup and chocolate pudding. “Personal fabrication is about empowering individuals to express themselves and to shape their own worlds,” he says, “independent of the mass-manufacturing system.”


Moyer’s latest project is PopFab, a tiny fabrication multi-tool that he developed alongside MIT Center for Bits and Atoms PhD student Nadya Peek. PopFab packs a CNC mill, 3-D printer, vinyl cutter, and drawing tool into a briefcase, letting designers carry a tiny, nomadic fabrication workshop with them wherever they go. The duo call it “a multi-tool for the 21st century.”

As Moyer and Peek demonstrate, PopFab is fairly simple to set up. Inside the suitcase sits a computer-controlled motion platform, which serves as the work stage. A mechanical arm hangs above it, connected to a detachable head. You hook up your laptop and choose which printer head and material you’re going to use, and the machine whirs to life. In their introductory video, they start small by printing a little plastic goldfish–but it’s easy to imagine the broader implications of a portable fab lab, especially in remote undeserved parts of the world.

PopFab is the result of years of research and prototyping. Moyer and Peek are strong believers in DIY fabrication, active in the Fab@Home open source movement. In 2009, Moyer built a personal fabricator called FabMate with Indian engineering students. At MIT’s CADLab, he developed a CNC mill that could be built at home for less than $100. At MIT, Peek’s advisor Neil Gershenfeld teaches a class called “How to Make Something that Makes Almost Anything.” It was there that Moyer and Peek built the current prototype, which they say owes much to Gershenfeld’s Machines That Make project.

What’s been made with PopFab so far? Moyer recounts one great example over email, remembering when he and blogger Christine McLaren found a lost bike helmet in a Berlin park. Someone had tied the helmet to a lamppost, hoping to attract its owner. “Christine suggested that we turn the lamp post into a lost and found. So we went to a nearby cafe, plugged in, and 3-D-printed some hooks and vinyl cut the words Fundbüro (lost and found office).” They attached the hooks and signage to the lamppost, and voilà: an impromptu lost and found.

Looking at the wire-filled metal suitcase, it’s tough to imagine that the TSA would allow PopFab through security. But the team has already carried it onto several transatlantic flights. In fact, the machine was partially designed in Saudi Arabia and Berlin, where Moyer finished it before presenting at the now-infamous BMW Guggenheim Lab. “We’ve only run into trouble at security once, and that was departing Saudi Arabia,” Moyer remembers. “The language barrier made it difficult to explain what the device did, so the airline staff ended up padding the machine with thick foam and stowing it below. Generally, the machine sails through security without raising any eyebrows or even being opened by security.”

Moyer and Peek are devoted to the concept behind PopFab, which is autonomous, self-sufficient creative production. “A large motivation for this project has been the fact that as engineers we are tied to the tools which we use to manifest our designs in the real world,” Moyer says. “This generally means that we’re tethered to the electronics benches and machine shops which house these tools. Our goal with PopFab is to break these chains and permit a lifestyle where adventure and travel can co-exist with our need to design and create.” Over the next few months, they’ll create a few more demo videos showing PopFab’s capabilities. “We hope that this is only the beginning,” they say, though they’re mum on details about when (and, indeed, if) it’ll be available to the public.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.