Vacuum forming is an industrial process typically used in large factories, whereby plastic sheets are melted and then sealed against molds to create common objects. ATM machines are made this way, as are kiosks, road signs, ice trays, and countless other objects we encounter daily.
It's a relatively simple process that can produce large quantities of an object quickly—so product designers Benjamin Redford and Alex Smilansky thought, why not bring it to the masses? Their invention, the Formbox, currently Kickstarting, is a compact simple-to-use vacuum former that can create any number of small objects using a variety of materials (plastic, resin, concrete, silicon). It's designed to be used in one's own home—and in fact, it insists on it. The machine is hooked up to, and powered by, the humble household vacuum cleaner.
Redford and Smilansky call the Formbox—which measures 18''x10''x12," roughly the size a file box—a "factory for your desktop." It has a built-in heater and a tray for materials that slides vertically along two stainless steel rods. The pair 3-D printed a silicon connector that fits into the machine on one end and seals to the tube of any vacuum on the other.
To use the Formbox, you create a prototype of your design, place it on the bed, then lower the heated plastic or other material onto the object. The air from the vacuum sucks the material to form the shape of the object, creating a mold by which to replicate it.
The Kickstarter video gives a nice demonstration:
Redford started working on an early version of the machine five years ago while earning a bachelor's degree at Goldsmiths College at University of London. He picked the idea back up again after visiting a factory that used vacuum formers while on a business trip for a digital agency in London. He quit his job, started working on Formbox full-time, then asked Smilansky, a former colleague, to partner on the project. The pair's main intention was to create something accessible, relatively affordable, and easy-to-use without any prior expertise. For makers with a 3-D printer, it can be used to make replicas of the printed objects quickly and in big quantities. But for designers making prototypes or hobbyists making things on a small scale, it's also an easy, standalone alternative to 3-D printing.
"A 3-D printer can be slow, really unreliable and it takes a lot of time," says Redford, adding that it usually takes training in CAD or other technical expertise to use one. "Formbox allows someone who has never had access to pro-making before to take something out of the cupboard and make something with their hands—without CAD or engineering know-how."
There are a few obvious limitations when compared to a 3-D printer. Size, for one—you can only make objects as big as the bed (though the same is true of compact 3-D printers). You also can't actually create the object with the vacuum former, just the mold. But Redford and Smilansky, who beta tested the machine in a marathon making session with a group of designers and friends, have seen it used in some inventive ways. One participant created a LED-lit chandelier out of plastic bananas; another create light-up paddle boards used in a contact game of his own invention.
The Kickstarter page shows tamer inventions as well: geometric concrete planters, a minimalist soap dish, chocolate made from a custom pastry mold. Each machine comes with a kit, of which there are more you can buy separately. Redford and Smilansky also created an online platform so people can share what they make.
Though the pair originally thought the product would appeal mostly to designers and 3-D printing hobbyists, the Kickstarter campaign has been met with enthusiasm from pastry chefs (who work with molds to create intricate desserts), small business owners, and amateur makers.