A Quiet Revolution

Science fiction TV has long promised a future where advanced machines conjure complex objects seemingly out of thin air (though for some reason they never seem to be able to create whatever item it is that might resolve the current episode's plot without resorting to a space battle).  While we're far from that level of technology, we are approaching a time when it will be possible for people of modest means to, in a sense, download real-world products from the internet!

The Future of Manfacturing?No, there won't be a guy at the Amazon.com warehouse stuffing that coffee mug you just ordered into a funnel connected to a network cable.  Instead, you'll download a coffee-mug schematic - probably free to download and created with free software like Google SketchUp.  Maybe you'll even customize it a little yourself, or design your own.  When you're ready, you'll "print" it to a machine in your garage or basement.  Make a few for friends, if you're feeling generous!

The availability of cheap, high-speed computing power and the falling prices of computer-controlled manufacturing technologies have spawned a burgeoning "open source design" and manufacturing community akin to the open source software movement whose products are working behind the scenes of almost everything we see and do on the internet.  Will this new community's efforts lead to fundamental changes in our civilization the way the internet has?

Enabling Technologies

A number of technologies are making this new movement possible.  Some of them aren't new, but they're gradually becoming more powerful and less expensive than ever before, bringing custom, low volume manufacturing capability into the hands of serious hobbyists.  Time will tell if the trend progresses until they're common in homes and businesses everywhere.

3D Printers

3d Printing - the future of manufacturing?Credit: The Economist MagazineHeat up a bit of plastic until it melts.  Squirt a thin layer of it onto a surface where it will dry quickly.  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

That's the basic idea behind these revolutionary devices that can turn an image from a 3D drawing program into a real object you can hold in your hand, all through the simple action of clicking the "Print" button on your screen!  The video below shows a trade-show demonstration by one of the vendors who are working to bring these devices down to consumer-level pricing.  It's printing a simple decorative plaque, but there's no reason it couldn't print complex parts, for instance, or a replacement part for the piece of your five-year-old's favorite toy that just broke when she dropped it down the stairs.

These devices are already taking off in many industries as miracles of rapid prototyping - businesses can quickly generate "test copies" right in the office of new parts or products to make sure everything fits together before going through the more expensive processes involved in building the first full-blown prototypes.

There's even a project underway to design open-source schematics for a 3D printer that can be used to print a new 3D printer!

Inexpensive, Programmable Electronics

Printing a solid object is one thing, but what it you want to make that object actively do something?  The answer in big industry, in many cases, is to use embedded electronics and custom hardware with specially programmed micro-controllers.  Impossible for the do-it-yourselfer, right?

The Arduino UnoCredit: http://arduino.ccOf course not!  Programmable, embeddable hardware devices, believe it or not, are well within the budget of the average consumer!  The big star in this emerging market is a family of little gadgets collectively referred to as the "Arduino".  It's open source hardware - if you have the tools, talent, and inclination, you can download the schematics and build your own, or you can buy whichever model suits your needs at prices starting below $20.  Then plug it into your home computer, download some free, open-source software, and get to work.

It may not matter if you don't know the first thing about electronics and don't care to write a single line of code; there's a very good chance somebody, somewhere in the devoted group of Arduino developers has already done what you want to do and posted how-tos and program code to the internet.  The variety of Arduino projects documented on the web is astounding:  there are robots, weather stations, devices that water your plants while you're away, remote-controlled cars, motion-detecting "silly-string"-shooting pumpkins, and laser harps.  One person posted detailed instructions for turning a standard lawnmower into something you can control with the push of a button while you relax in a lawn chair.

Slicing, Dicing, Grinding, Cutting

You still won't find an inexpensive home laser cutting machine, but the routers, milling machines, and lathes that many hobbyists employ are getting smarter.  Versions that will accept 3D computer drawing files and carve raw materials into the desired shape are now within reach.  This makes possible the at-home creation of complex wood or metal objects without extensive special skills, and many of the files you might download to send to your 3D printer can also be sent to your mill.

The Internet

The web is what ties it all together.  Thousands of open-source designs and projects are available from sites like Instructables and Thingiverse; companies like Ponoko allow you to upload schematics for inexpensive 3D printing if you don't have hardware yourself.  Arduino fans build gadgets of ever increasing power and share them freely, tech companies release open-source laptop designs, and serious hobbyists show you how to build your own tools (which can then be used to make more tools in a never-ending mad spiral of toolmaking).  And as the online "maker" community grows, the sophistication of low-cost manufacturing increases while the price trickles ever downward.

Broader Implications

The coffee mug example I used above trivializes the potential impact of this emerging family of technologies.  To illustrate some of the real opportunities presented, here are some scenarios that are possible, or almost possible, already.

  • A truck rolls into a remote, destitute village somewhere in the Third World.  On board are a laptop, a portable generator, and several of the computer-controlled devices listed above, along with a collection of raw materials for processing.  Specialists along for the ride assess the village's needs; the well the locals drink from is unhealthy, and they could use a better system for delivering irrigation to the nearby fields where they try to grow food.  Using a satellite phone, they download schematics for a basic water treatment system from the AguaClara open source project at Cornell, along with other tools they might require.  A water purifier is manufactured on site - no waiting, no shipping, no clearing with customs; plastic tubing to fit the town's specific irrigation requirements is also "printed".  In a short time, the standard of living in the village is significantly improved, and the truck moves on its next destination.
  • You just can't seem to find a replacement mounting bracket for the alternator on that classic car you've been working on.  They stopped making that part years ago, and the junkyards have all been picked clean.  Luckily, the local parts store has a solution - they download the schematic from the manufacturer, send it to the machine in the back room, and tell you to come pick up your new, original-equipment-spec bracket in an hour.  Or you download it, and send it to a reasonably priced local "printing" service - or to the mill in your garage!
  • Local, on-demand manufacturing is proven to provide cost savings in circumstances where the finished product does not require a complex parts-assembly process.   It cuts down on the need for extensive inventory and decreases shipping costs, because only the raw materials need to be moved around - the final product is crafted on site.  As a result, there are fewer tractor-trailers crowding the roads, and you can finally get to work in under an hour.

Now, if you'll excuse me...

... there's a schematic for a Yoda bust that I absolutely must download and send to a 3D print service.