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.

Monday, January 08, 2007

More details on the Craftsman Compu-Carver

The OEM manufacturer of this fascinating device is a company called LHR Technologies, in Pasadena, Texas. Their product is called the CarveWright, and at first glance, it appears to be the same specs as the product being sold by Sears under their Craftsman brand.

For those still wondering what all the fuss is about, here's a video demonstration of the CarveWright, showing off some of its capabilities. Pretty cool stuff.

The device is an enclosed CNC router, with a fixed gantry and a moving table. It uses a unique conveyer belt-style work surface, which allows it to operate on materials much larger than the footprint of the machine. The CarveWright site shows a full line of tooling and accessories, which I assume will be offered by Sears as well, or will at least be compatible with the Craftsman model.

After taking a closer look at the specs, it's evident that this machine is pretty versatile. It cuts wood, but appears fully equipped to cut and carve plastic, foam, and other soft sheet goods, possibly even soft metals like aluminum. There's a user forum for the original CarveWright that shows a gallery of some of the output (standard CNC woodworker items like signs and box tops for the moment, but remember, this is the tip of the iceberg...)

The revolution is starting...at Sears?

I'm having trouble keeping my geeky excitement under wraps about this one.

Here's why..

In the trajectory of events that will lead to widespread localized manufacturing, and a new economic model where production become distributed among consumers, there is a key technological challenge that must be overcome. This challenge is the development of manufacturing machinery that is cheap, easy to use, and widely available to end consumers. So far, the only machinery capable of translating computer-created designs into physical objects are expensive, proprietary, and enormous. These machines are the CNC mills and routers and laser and plasma cutters owned by large manufacturing firms, rapid prototyping shops, and universities. But when this technology becomes miniaturized and cheaper, as occurred when mainframes gave way to minicomputers, microcomputers, and personal computers, the floodgates will be opened, and, (if you can pardon a little melodrama), a new era of creativity and human achievement will be ushered in. In other words, it will be a big deal.

So Sears has announced a new power tool, under its Craftsman label. It's called the CompuCarve, and at first glance, it appears to be a genuine consumer-level plug-and-play computer controlled manufacturing device. This is completely unprecedented; before this device, a consumer needed either a tall stack of money or an electrical engineering background, or both, to get anything close to a home personal fab machine. The Craftsman CompuCarve is fairly new news, so I haven't had the chance to get my hands on one yet, but I can assure you that I will. And when I do, I'll report my findings and conclusions here.

If the CompuCarve is what it purports to be, and is sufficiently capable, it could well be the Altair 8800 or Apple I of the personal fabrication industry -- a simple yet functional entry-level machine accessible by the masses that will open the door to future development of more and more sophisticated and cheaper machines. This has the potential to be the enabler for the new economy of the future, where consumers own the means of production.