Thursday, April 26, 2007

Techshop brings manufacturing within personal reach

Wired has a great snippet about a place in Menlo Park called Techshop. It's a well-equipped fabrication workshop, and makes expensive and sophisticated tools, from laser cutters to arc welders to CNC lathes and 3D printers, available to the public! To use! And touch!

And for a very reasonable $30 day pass, anyone can get their mitts on some top-notch fabrication equipment. Check out the list of toys here.

This is exciting news for me, because I live in the Bay Area. I plan to go to the Techshop, and to write about the experience. This is a great opportunity to get trained on high-tech fabrication equipment as a hobbyist, to use tools otherwise relegated to industrial clients, but as a hobbyist. I wonder whether there's a market yet for such businesses elsewhere in the world.

Accessibility is the biggest obstacle in achieving any kind of personal fabrication 'revolution'. I've written about how lowering the price of the tools will improve accessibility, but Techshop shows us that there's another way -- sharing the cost among users. This time-rental business model resembles ZipCar or CityCarShare, because it allows the cost and overhead of large expensive equipment to be absorbed and distributed by a large number of users. Like cars, fabrication equipment can be useful to many people, but would be left dormant for extended periods of time if every user owned their own. In the case of Techshop, sharing the costs could democratize the tools of innovation.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Homemade superstars

Kate Walsh, bedroom musician.

An interesting bit of news from the UK here about a homemade album hitting Number 3 album on the UK iTunes Store charts. Good-quality recording technology is making it into bedrooms and garages, and Apple itself has made it easier for committed amateurs to produce and distribute a good product, with software like GarageBand. There's a corollary here to the personal fabrication movement, and the similar democratization of physical production technologies.

So on that note, I'm tempted to proclaim this as another example of personally-tailored consumer products gaining influence, and as an example of the democratization of the means of production. Tempted...but I'm suspicious. With more and more producers of content, the odds of any one of those producers gaining great widespread appeal get worse and worse.

After all, any student of Chris Anderson knows that as you increase the number of producers, and add to the Long Tail of consumer offerings, the popularity of individual titles drops off significantly, further fragmenting public tastes, increasing demand for the tail to go longer and further causing the 'head' to shrink. In other words, hits don't happen anymore when the tail gets lengthened.

Of course, rumors are afoot that this is a PR stunt, and this could indeed be another Lonelygirl15 phenomenon, where a corporate presence is creating something appearing to be amateur-produced, but if it's legit, it's an exciting precedent. I haven't had a chance to listen to this myself, but I have a gift certificate for the UK iTunes Store at home that's about to go to good use...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

High tech DIY

An interesting story about homemade high-tech:

Ken Jones, personal fabricator.

A man in New Zealand used a $10 wok to create a television transmitter that would have cost $20,000 if bought from a manufacturer. It's an isolated case, but a great example of the kind of mentality behind personal fabbing.

From the New Zealand Herald.

Myopic foresight

"Transmission of documents via telephone wires is possible in principle, but the apparatus required is so expensive that it will never become a practical proposition."
-Dennis Gabor, British physicist and author of Inventing the Future, 1962

Resting comfortably in the present, it's easy to feel a smug sense of entitlement to the technological products in our lives. We take for granted previously unbelievable technologies like live television news broadcasts, email, and international air travel. It's easy to forget that there was a time when transatlantic journeys took several treacherous weeks, and when news traveled at the speed of horse. The challenges and uncertainties of the past that preceded this sophisticated world that we enjoy were just as real as the uncertainties we face today about our future. Hindsight is 20/20, but when we look forward, we stand the same chance of getting it right as Jules Verne - we might get the general idea, but we don't really know how current emerging technologies will manifest themselves in the coming years.

Move over, Mr. Gore...
In his novel Paris in the 20th Century, written in 1864, Jules Verne envisioned a "worldwide telegraphic communications network". Sound familiar?

Personal fabrication, in whatever forms it comes to exist, will be the result of greater developments in fabrication technology, currently cooking away in academic institutions and commercial organizations. The most exciting far-fetched predictions tell us of a Santa Claus machine, like a replicator from Star Trek, that can produce anything instantly. Anything! Lawn mowers! Ham sandwiches! Anything!

In reality, personal fabrication will begin to touch the lives of ordinary people slowly, and in several single-function ways. By its strictest definition, personal fabrication has already begun to affect our lives. Your desktop printer? That's a personal fabricator. It makes a new physical object, makes it with high levels of precision, and allows you, the user, to dictate the parameters and design of that object. The future will bring more and more control of objects in this precise, automated and customizable way. The scope of these objects will simply expand from printed sheets of paper to things like tools and furniture and electronic gadgets.

I've harped on a lot about CNC routing and cutting machines, because that's what I'm most familiar with, but also because I see immediately useful applications for it, demonstrated by the Craftsman CompuCarve, for instance. But things are moving so quickly, technologies being developed at such a speed, that we really don't know which applications of personal fabrication will take off and which will linger in obscurity.

What are some different ways that personal fabrication could affect our lives? Thermoforming is an interesting candidate. Although it's still in a very early stage, the Dishmaker is a prime example of a machine that could change the way we think of household items. The machine takes discs of plastic, thermoforms them into different shapes to serve as plates, bowls, and cups, then reforms them back into discs after use. If we look past the obvious issues that would impede the success of the prototype in its current form (complications arising from reforming dirty dishes, production time for each dish), then we can glimpse one fascinating way in which technology could take a consumer "off the grid" of manufacturing, distribution, and sales.

Dishes produced by the Dishmaker, designed and built by Leonardo Amerigo Bonanni at MIT

If dishes, or any household item, for that matter, could be produced from standard raw materials by the end user, then consumers would become the owners of autonomous, sustainable and closed systems of production. Any reason that might have previously compelled a consumer to buy new dishes (breakage, outdated or boring design, need for different sizes, etc) could be addressed by the consumer, without having to call upon the resources of an outside manufacturer.

Of course, any of these ideas might seem as laughable as earlier predictions of flying cars and meals in pill form. We won't know until the future actually arrives, but it's a lot of fun to imagine in the meantime.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Green manufacturing - think globally, consume locally

In discussing the advancement of personal fabrication technologies, and predicting the ways in which these technologies will affect everyday life, I've noticed that several of the underlying themes behind these changes are complementary to another seemingly unrelated topic - locally-sourced food.

Alemany Farmers Market, San Francisco

Current systems of distribution for food and manufactured goods rely on putting a concentrated strain on natural resources at the point of production, as well as through the process of shipping products over long distances, consuming inordinate amounts of fuel and emitting massive amounts of CO2 as they bring their goods to market. This is largely the scenario today, whether the product is an automobile or an artichoke.

A shift from a centralized and concentrated model of production to a localized and distributed one would have huge social, societal and environmental impacts. This should serve as a good motivator for these changes, for food as well as the other 'stuff' we consume.

I'm imagining a world in which 80% of the food we eat is harvested from within 500 miles of where we live, and where we only import things from farther afield that we can't grow at home, like coffee and tea and sugar, (that is, for those of us who live far from coffee plantations.) A few ambitious people would prefer 100% from within 200 miles. This dream is already easy to understand today, and encourages support of local farmers, artisanal cheesemakers, meat and eggs from local and pastoral ranches (as opposed to battery-farms), and a general rejection of frivolous imports like asparagus in January, lamb from the opposite hemisphere, or sushi shipped to Denver via air freight from Tokyo, as well as a rejection of overly-processed and additive-laden foods. In short, this is a healthy, natural, and low-impact world of food.

Similarly, I'm imagining a world in which 50% of the manufactured goods we consume are produced within 1500 miles of where we live.

The other half would be comprised of those items requiring highly-specialized manufacturing techniques, or for which the infrastructure required to produce the item requires investment too large to allow small-scale production possible, such as microprocessors and other intricate electronic components.

The local blacksmith, circa 1900
copyright Lakeside Historical Society

But hardware, building materials, appliances, furniture, and cars would be produced using cheap and standardized manufacturing equipment and open-source designs. Small items could be produced either at home or at a neighborhood fabber shop, not unlike the key cutting kiosks in hardware stores. Large items would be produced by a high-technology version of a neighborhood blacksmith, a CNC-equipped mini-factory located on the outskirts of urban areas that would crank out washing machines or motorcycles or delivery trucks, all made-to-order.

Economies of scale and mass production would be rendered unnecessary by the cost savings rendered by automated and easy manufacturing equipment. The majority of international trade would be reduced to simple exchanges of raw materials, and humankind's carbon footprint would be slashed dramatically.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Another taste of the future

The marketing department over at Sears has cranked out a video advertisement for the CompuCarve, and it does a great job of showing off some of the capabilities in a way that could excite the general public.

Click below to take a peek:

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The greater world of CNC, and why it matters

All of this talk about CNC, and the implications that it will have when unleashed on the masses in an easy and useful form, makes the hasty assumption that the value of such technology is unquestionable. In reality, there's a lot of confusion and simple lack of understanding about what CNC actually is. On that note, I'm using this post to tell the story of how I discovered CNC technology and learned why it's important and interesting:

I had to look it up; I had never heard the term, but the man on the phone batted it around as if everyone knew. Finally I found it - Computer Numeric Controlled. This still didn't make a lot more sense to me, but I did a little more research, printed out my resume, and drove over to the offices for the interview a few days later. Shortly thereafter, I took my first 'real' job after university, running marketing efforts for a CNC equipment manufacturer called MultiCam.
Over the next couple of years, I got an extensive education on the world of CNC and automated manufacturing technologies. MultiCam primarily made CNC routers, and had branched into plasma cutters, laser cutters, and rotary blade cutters; all table-and-gantry machines made for sheet goods and three-axis carving. But I learned about the state of the industry as a whole: who the big players were, what the problems were, who the consumers were, and what their needs and concerns were. Technology has continued to progress since I left MultiCam in 2004, but much of these observations still hold true:

Typically, the machinery is expensive, involves complex and proprietary control software with steep learning curves. Big manufacturers come from the United States (Thermwood, Komo) Germany (Homag), and Italy (SCM Group, Morbidelli, Biesse). MultiCam, however, was relatively unique, because its machines typically cost less and feature controls that are intuitive and easy to learn.

The high end of the consumer segment for CNC machinery are the large manufacturing companies that produce, for instance, truckloads of furniture components for Ikea. These consumers typically operate the room-sized multi-million dollar Homag machines, and are about as far removed from a personal fabrication solution as they can be. They even look kinda like mainframe computers, don't they?

But the small- to mid-level segment of the market for CNC machines is the interesting one. Consumers here are smaller, often with fewer than 10 employees, and include custom cabinetmakers, sign shops, custom molding and trim makers, boutique guitar makers, snowboard and surfboard makers, HVAC contracters, award and trophy engravers, furniture builders, and countless other small applications.

These were MultiCam's primary customers, and in many cases, their decision to "go CNC" led to a miniature version of the Industrial Revolution. I spoke to customers who saw their labor costs plummet and their productivity skyrocket overnight, all thanks to a machine that could operate with minimal supervision, producing intricate parts while the owner sipped her coffee.

The true implications of this technology were made clearest to me at Ligna, a massive global trade show for the woodworking and furniture industries, held every two years in Germany. Walking the exhibit halls prior to the show's opening, and watching the different vendors setting up and testing their machinery, I saw the components for a fully automated robot manufacturing operation, on display under the same roof.

Walking from the MultiCam booth, where sheets of hardwood or MDF were being transformed into components for rocking chairs and interlocking side tables, I passed a booth where a machine received cut parts, sanded their edges smooth, and, if specified, applied a strip of veneer to the cut edges. In another booth, I saw parts being powder-coated, and in another, automatically shrink-wrapped and labelled with barcoded product specs. And one of the most impressive machines I saw was the multi-axis robotic arm, shown taking stacks of raw material sheets, loading them individually from platform to platform, and, conceivably, from machine to machine.

I quickly envisaged a factory where every process would be performed quickly, reliably, precisely, and exactly the same each time, a factory where forklifts would deposit stacks of raw materials at one end and pick up boxed products at the other. This level of automation is nearly here for multinational companies like Toyota, but for the first time, I got a glimpse of the future, a world where that same technology was available to a small business owner for a fraction of the cost.

The fascinating possibilities of personal fabrication are an extension of this glimpse of the future, and will become widespread as a result of the innovations in the larger CNC world. At one end of the spectrum of size are the huge million-dollar behemoths, not unlike the mainframes of the 1970s, and at the other end are projects like RepRap, seeking to draw upon organic and exponential decentralized growth. The development of this technology is not and will not be focused in either of these areas alone, but the result is certain to have large and lasting effects on the future of objects, and our relationship with them.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Would you print a printer?

One of the oft-proclaimed goals of many of the academically-sponsored development projects has been self replication; that is, the ability of a machine to create all the components necessary to build a copy of itself. In particular, the RepRap project at Bath University in the UK seems to consider this the holy grail of personal fabrication technology.

It's a cool goal, but my perspective here is that market viability will the critical factor in mass adoption of fabbing machines. So I question the importance of the whole self-replication aspect. Sure, as the technology matures and develops in sophistication, consumers will be able to create more and more sophisticated objects, including complex electronic components, and conceivably, another fabrication machine. And this will be an exciting time, because it will allow true open source hardware development and extremely rapid innovation. But as a potential consumer in the early days of personal fabrication, I'm more interested in being able to fab up a wall mount bracket for my new television monitor, or new personally-tailored insoles for my running shoes, or a custom side table to fit in the odd-shaped corner of my entryway.

New Scientist published an informative article today about personal fabrication and the current state of development. From the article, a few notes from Fab@Home's Evan Malone at Cornell University:

"We are trying to get this technology into as many hands as possible," Malone told New Scientist. "The kit is designed to be as simple as possible." Once the parts have been bought, a normal soldering iron and a few screwdrivers are enough to put it together. "It's probably the cheapest machine of this kind out there," he adds.

Now if the goal here is get this technology into as many hands as possible (and this is most certainly the goal!!), then we won't get there by distributing kits that require soldering irons. The center of the bell curve here is the group of consumers who have never touched a soldering iron, who will only consider playing with this technology if they can take the machine out of the box, plug it in, and start making stuff. The recently-announced Compu-Carver is much more on-target, taking care of the difficult technological challenges and packaging the experience in a straightforward off-the-shelf machine. It should be noted that the Compu-Carver is a CNC router, and that the Fab@Home machine is a 3D deposition printer, but there's no reason the same strategy can't be used to market this manufacturing technology too.

The highest level of performance is a long-term goal, but in the short-term, self replication is only a distraction from the fundamental and basic benefits that consumers will need to encounter. These fundamentals need to be understood widely by the public, and their relevance to normal life needs to be communicated. The ability to make a machine that can make a machine that can make a machine might get the true geeks interested, but it's only going to glaze the eyes of the average consumer.