Although cell-free protein synthesis has been practiced for decades as a research tool, only recently have advances suggested its feasibility for commercial protein production. This focused review, based on the 2005 Amgen Award lecture, summarizes the relevant progress from the Swartz laboratory. When our program began, projected costs were much too high, proteins with disulfide bonds could not be folded effectively, and no economical scale-up technologies were available. By focusing on basic biochemical reactions and by controlling cell-free metabolism, these limitations have been methodically addressed. Amino acid supply has been stabilized and central metabolism activated to dramatically reduce substrate costs. Control of the sulfhydral redox potential has been gained and a robust disulfide isomerase added to facilitate oxidative protein folding. Finally, simple scale-up technologies have been developed. These advances not only suggest production feasibility for pharmaceutical proteins, they also provide enabling technology for producing patient-specific vaccines, for evolving new enzymes to enable biological hydrogen production from sunlight, and for developing new and highly effective water filters. Although many challenges remain, this newly expanded ability to activate and control protein production holds much promise for both research and commercial applications.