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.


Blogger plaasjaapie said...

Great article!

A spinoff of the RepRap project that I am working on, Tommelise, is focussed on the American parts environment and uses somewhat different technology and a different control strategy. It's also an open source specification will let anybody with a few hand tools and primitive woodworking skills bootstrap themselves into 3D fabrication for about $150. Tommelise's extruder is qualified for polycapralactone and is presently being qualified as well for both high density polypropylene (HDPE, the stuff your plastic cutting board is made of) and polypropylene (HPP, the stuff your coffee maker and plastic electric kettle is made of). You can keep an eye on the Tommelise project at...

Forrest Higgs,
Pacific Grove

Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 3:02:00 PM PST  

Post a Comment

<< Home