Manufacturing’s Big Bang

Open fabrication will challenge key assumptions of industrial production: that there are always increasing returns to scale, that complex supply chains are needed to fabricate complex objects, and that manufacturing processes (rather than design, which can easily be copied) are the core intellectual property.

As these foundations are disrupted in manufacturing’s version of the Big Bang, we’ll see the way manufacturing is organized in physical space fragment and recombine along several dimensions:

From centralized factories to distributed, mobile fabs

Traditional assembly lines have long placed limitations on where and how objects can be produced because the scale needed to reduce unit costs requires massive centralization. 3D printing will allow production to be moved closer to the site of consumption and allow supply chains to fragment into many very small-scale parts producers. Also, 3D printers are self-contained, more standardized than computer-controlled machine tools, and require a supply chain to provide only two things: electrical power and a limited set of feedstocks. This will enable new kinds of manufacturing business models based on short-run, site- and event-specific or even ad hoc production runs.

From fixed to mobile machines

3D printers will also offer the possibility of being moved during the production process, allowing for the creation of structures in the field. Ironically, self-propelled 3D printers will be able to industrialize the production of some goods that have traditionally been too large to manufacture in factories.  In building construction, for example,  3D printed masonry could ultimately be cheaper relative to labor-intensive traditional building methods. Contour Crafting, a technology under development at the University of Southern California, has sought to make 3D printing the pivotal technology in what amounts to a house-building factory on wheels. The researchers involved project mainstream commercialization within the next ten years.

From desktop back to factory

Dominic Muren’s Humblefactory seeks to source materials locally to create sustainable electronics. (Source: Dominic Muren)

While open fabbing will diffuse manufacturing capabilities broadly throughout the economy, countercurrents will develop as these technologies creep back up the supply chain and transform the factory itself. 3D printing is already playing a role in the factory—for instance, printing complex new shapes for aircraft assemblies that would be nearly impossible to manufacture using traditional techniques. In certain production niches, from 10 units to 10,000 units, 3D printing will allow more kinds of local manufacturing enterprises to thrive, both by bringing the unit costs of small-scale production down and by being small and unobtrusive enough to be slipped into nonindustrial urban spaces. Organizations like Dominic Muren’s Humblefactory—a Seattle-based development consultancy offering strategic design consulting in open hardware for the everyday industrialist—are emerging to bring manufacturing out of the factory and into the home of the “cottage industrialist.”

Next: The Foundations of Open Fabrication

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