Few industries can boast the huge leaps in technology that the computer industry has made in the last 50 years. Since the invention of the transistor in the 1940s, computers have shrunk from behemoth machines that took up multiple rooms to portable devices the size of paperback books that can perform hundreds of millions of operations per second. While computer manufacturing has made great strides in the last half-century, the manufacturing process is still limited to a handful of companies.

Manufacturing computers is a costly and time-consuming undertaking. A microprocessor fabrication plant costs $2 billion and takes two full weeks to produce one silicon-based microprocessor. Few computer enthusiasts have the resources to make their own computer chips. However, researchers are developing ways to allow anyone to become their own microprocessor fabricator. Users will simply download microchip designs from the Internet and print out a working ink-based, plastic processor on a desktop fabrication machine, similar to an ink jet printer.

Photo courtesy Nano Media Group at MIT's Media Lab
A circuit pattern printed onto plastic using an ink-like substance

The next phase of computing will make the users into the creators and builders of their own computer components. In this edition of How Stuff Will Work, you will learn how desktop fabricators will allow you to print out computer components. This article also describes a few of the projects that have already succeeded in using ink jet printers to create transistors, actuators and linear-drive motors.