Instructables

The Dream Factory - Squid Labs and Instructables in Wired September 2005

This was Instructables' big debut. The author, Clive Thompson, came and hung out at Squid Labs for a couple of days, and later on we had a hilarious half-day photoshoot where the photographers couldn't remember Dan's name and had to keep calling him "wrench."

Wired 13.09 The Dream Factory
by Clive Thompson

They're already living that future in a small warehouse in Emeryville, California. It's the headquarters of Squid Labs, run by a gang of five MIT alums who by day create prototypes of new technologies for outside firms - and by night fabricate weird gizmos just for fun.

"Everything I own is basically one of a kind," says a cheery Saul Griffith, one of the cofounders, as he crouches on the floor of his dust-covered workshop, rooting through an enormous bucket of metal brackets and bolts. A tall, shaggy Australian, he's wearing ragged flip-flops and a pair of cargo pants so stained with oil and grime that I can't determine their original color. Dozens of his group's inventions lie scattered about: a Frisbee embedded with microchip-driven LEDs, a set of robots precision-cut from plastic, a bunch of helmet-mounted laser-and-GPS sensors designed to help firefighters locate one another in a blazing house.

Today, Griffith is building a "hybrid electric bicycle" with a hidden battery compartment inside the bike's 4-foot-long, chopper-style front forks. To hold the forks in place, he spent the morning designing a bracket, then cut out a flat template for it on Squid Labs' laser cutter. Now, with that template as a guide, he hacks the shape out of quarter-inch steel, using a terrifyingly loud metal cutter. "I'm really into this 'tractor' aesthetic, getting everything to look like industrial machinery!" he hollers over the cutter's shrieks, while a 3-foot cone of orange sparks flies up and ricochets off his face.

Every few minutes, Griffith pauses to snap a photo of his progress. When done, he'll write up a comprehensive guide on how to build his project. This, he argues, is the next crucial step in fab culture: getting hobbyists to carefully document their plans and share them online. Squid Labs is hoping to kick-start such sharing this fall when it launches Instructables.com - an open database of interesting projects and fab techniques, "kind of like a Wikipedia for making stuff," Griffith explains. If people want to build his electric hybrid chopper bicycle, they'll be able to download the CorelDraw design of the bracket and send it someplace like eMachineShop to have their own copy printed.

"We got inspired when we looked at all these guys who'd engineered these incredible, modded parts for their Harleys. They'd have amazing photos of them, but they'd never post the CAD image," Griffith says. "We were like, Why not go open source?"

Later that day, I get a taste of how weirdly transformative this idea is. I'm hanging out with Dan Goldwater - another Squid Labs cofounder - and admiring one of his inventions. It's a pair of plastic gears that sit on a bike pedal and power a tiny generator. As you ride, you can run LED lights or a radio. I tell him I'd love to have a version of it myself. So a couple of Squid Labs guys go over to the laser cutter, pull up the design, and a few minutes later hand me exact copies of Goldwater's gears. Design once, print often. "Pretty cool, eh?" Goldwater grins.

"Griffith imagines that fab tools could produce new economic models for creators. Suppose a hobbyist made a cool plastic exterior for an MP3 player. Suppose she put the design online, and 700 people downloaded the file and had it printed at eMachineShop. "At what point," he asks, "would a manufacturer say, Hey, there's a market here - and offer to buy the design from her?"

"So, sure, soon we'll be able to build anything. But should we? "Let's say everyone suddenly can make their own hood ornaments. What if they actually do that? The real world would look like the Internet in 1996, when people started making their own Web sites." Griffith shudders. "Remember those hideous-looking psychedelic backgrounds and stupid animations? And blinking tags?"

"Rainbow dividers," Goldwater adds.

It's a good point - and it makes me anxious about my guitar. Sure, it looked fine onscreen. But what if it turns out to be a monstrosity in my hands? Recalling my decision to use clear acrylic for the body, I break into a nervous sweat. It's going to look like something from a mid-'80s, big-hair heavy-metal band! What the hell was I thinking?

Griffith interrupts my panic to announce that his chopper is ready. He wheels it onto the street, all five Squid Labbers in tow. Eric Wilhelm, a lanky designer, offers to be the test pilot. He straps on a helmet and mounts the seat. "Does it have brakes?" he asks.

"Sort of," Griffith says.

"It's amazing how often brakes are an afterthought," Wilhelm sighs. Then he hits the electric starter and peels off.