Anyone who’s ever tried woodcarving using a chisel or gouge knows how difficult it can be. It is not trivial to translate an idea — a concept of a shape — from one’s imagination into a physical form. Whether using your hands or a manual tool, manipulating a raw material at will is a demanding task.

FreeD (by Amit Zoran & Joe Paradiso from the Responsive Environments Group at the MIT Media Lab) is a handheld, digitally-controlled milling device. It is guided and monitored by a computer while still preserving the craftsperson’s freedom to sculpt and carve by hand. The computer intervenes only when the milling bit approaches the 3D model, which is planned beforehand. It does so either by slowing down the spindle speed or by drawing back the shaft; the rest of the time FreeD allows the user complete freedom to manipulate and shape the work in any creative way.

With advanced CAD software, free access to tutorials and 3D models, and a vast online community of makers, today we can make, download, or modify a CAD model of almost any desired object. We can then fabricate it directly through a digital process. The idea behind the FreeD is to allow us to engage with the physical material, not just with the CAD environment, freeing us to create our own interpretation of the virtual model. Thus, even though we are working based on a generic design, we can create something that is one of a kind.

In traditional crafts, the craftsperson’s tool techniques and creative decisions immediately influence the final artifact, making the output a reflection of the fabrication process. The same applies to digital fabrication through use of the FreeD. Several users may use the same CAD model, but end up with a different result, reflecting each person’s unique process.