MakerBot and other 3D printers seem like the future of small-scale manufacturing. A 3D printer can be something personal you use at home to print toys or coathangers. And as the prices of 3D printers come down, organizations like NASA can use them to rapidly prototype projects. A cool laser cutting system called Constructable comes at small-scale manufacturing another way. Constructable's creators argue that 3D printing is fast, but the actual creative process--which involves designing something in CAD software, printing, refining in software and re-printing--is too slow.
The solution, then, is cutting out the software step and interacting directly with the piece being created. Constructable works like a drafting table, except you're drawing straight into the laser cutting machine. And your "drawing" is actually invisible--Constructable analyzes drawings made with laser pointers and feeds them to a shape analyzer, which smooths and straights imperfect lines. An overhead camera follows the lines, and also recognizes which of 14 laser pointers is being used. Those pointers tell the shape analyzer what to do--draw a straight line, cut the corners off a rectangle, draw a gear.
Sketching precise lines with a laser means not being able to see the shape you've created until the laser cutter does its work. That seems unnerving, but Construcable's shape analysis looks spot-on in the video demonstration. It doesn't look like it's up to replicating the accuracy and intricacy of something designed in 3D CAD software, but for rapid rapid prototyping, it's a promising example of direct designing.