Several related developments in computing and technology suggest intriguing prospects for the world of design, plus tantalizing opportunities for domestic manufacturing and economic development.
Digital fabrication uses computer controlled tools, such as laser cutters, routers and three dimensional printers to make parts and assemblies. Formerly, such work required expensive molds or cutting and shaping with a variety of tools. Until recently, due to its high cost, this digital technology was mainly available only to large or highly specialized firms in the electronics, aerospace and auto industries. They used it to make prototypes and limited edition, high – value parts.
However, in recent years, the cost of these tools has fallen and they have also become simpler to use. As a consequence, the technology is now available to a broader set of customers, including small businesses and hobbyists. One of the most publicized examples of these digital fabrication tools is the Makerbot, a three dimensional printer that can create small intricately shaped, plastic objects.
Digital fabrication has made ubiquitous inroads in low profile industries as well. Consider your local sign shop or T shirt outfit and it will not surprise if they use digital technology to cut and print some of their products. In many respects the digital fabrication trend has snuck up on us.
Until fairly recently computers were used as automated drafting machines in the world of design and manufacturing. Now they are increasingly employed to model complicated shapes, assemblies and systems and they also simulate a product’s operation. In the construction industry for example, virtual buildings can be designed and assembled using a process and software called Building Information Modeling (BIM).
Three dimensional geometries, more complex than could be imagined and drawn manually, can now be created mathematically and represented with the technique of parametric modeling. Software can visualize a physical design solution such as a complexly curved building wall with operable openings or shutters, simulate its operation, write computer code for an array of sensors and actuators interacting within the prospective wall system and then, in theory at least, output the relevant model information directly to digital fabrication and assembly.
Microcontrollers and Sensors
With the explosion of consumer electronics such as smart phones, computing device size and cost has fallen, while computing power has drastically increased. Miniature computers on chips, known as microcontrollers, the most popular of which is the Arduino, retail for less than 20 dollars. These devices can be programmed using relatively simple computer languages or graphical editors requiring no programming knowledge. They can control sophisticated arrays of sensors and actuators such as lights and motors. Hobbyists, students and researchers have used them to control robots, toys, vehicles, appliances and even building mechanical systems.
Internet of Things
The growing distribution of sensors and actuators has generated a need to connect these things together in controllable networks. Called the Internet of Things, a series of objects, sensors, computers and people can be linked together over the Internet. This offers a pathway for commercial users for example to manage a building or factory including its inventory, or for consumers, the opportunity to manage their homes and all the devices and appliances within them from a smart phone.
From Fab Labs to Fab Manf
Most digital fabrication has until recently been the purview of large businesses, computer science, engineering and architecture schools, T shirt and sign shop examples notwithstanding. Popular interest in this technology has manifested in the creation of what are termed Fab Labs. These Labs are often community workshops, equipped with many of the tools mentioned here and made available to students, hobbyists and small businesses. Hobby interest in what’s called the Maker Movement, has been promoted by Make magazine, a contemporary essay on Popular Mechanics.
What are we to make of these developments? Some in the Maker Movement envision a future where individuals and small groups are empowered to build networks of sophisticated, highly interactive things. These could be buildings, appliances, cars or small, local utility systems. The scale of these endeavors might fall in the market gap between the Fab Lab concept and conventional large manufacturing.
Won’t digital design and fabrication just eliminate more jobs? The answer could be yes and no. Yes, if referring to jobs requiring the hand fabrication of parts and assemblies now made domestically. However, no and even a net gain of jobs, if parts and products now imported can be produced competitively in the US. In theory, with digital fabrication assuming a larger percentage of product price, country differences in labor cost will matter less, making US goods more competitive.
If more parts and products can be manufactured competitively at home this also reduces expenditures in global transportation, not to mention fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions; fewer containers making their way across the Pacific from Asian manufacturers. One key to reinvigorating the economy, will be for entrepreneurs to identify specific industries and business models that make the fabbing approach feasible beyond traditional, highly capitalized sectors. What opportunities for fabbing lie ahead in such industries as home furnishings, building products and construction?