Thursday, December 23, 2010

Democratic Manufacturing

There is a movement underway, and I am determined to get involved. Before you hear more, are there any takers to get in on 'democratic manufacturing' as it has been termed? No, this has nothing to do with political parties, but rather it has to do with who controls manufacturing processes and how people turn ideas into products.

The system in America over the last several hundred years has focused manufacturing in the large corporations, where skilled machinists operate large expensive machines to produce vast quantities of goods. This drives efficiency as workers are able to specialize, and economies of scale drive down the cost of each product. Right now, there is a push in exactly the opposite direction, so that individuals operate small low-cost machines to produce small quantities of goods. This is much more akin to the system used to make wooden clocks in rural Germany, where each person from the village would make components in their own home, and someone would put them together into the finished product. This modern day manufacturing movement goes much further, as each individual is able to design their own products and start making them on their own, right away.

You may ask, how is this possible? And won't quality suffer as a result of so many unskilled people trying to build things? Well, the answer has come from a variety of open source movements that rely on computer controlled machines. The RepRap initiative by Adrian Bowyer ( has created a self-replicating (or nearly so) 3D printer that costs well under $1000. It is in its third generation, and is looking very neat, although not quite ready for just anyone to use. Right alongside this is the Makerbot team ( who has created a standalone 3D printer for about $700 which is much easier to put together out of the box and get running right away. They've sold several thousand printers, and are having wonderful success to date. Both of these machines allow you to enter a CAD model into the computer, and it will print it out by melting a plastic and pushing it through a small hole to lay thin strips side by side until a full 3D model has been created. This is a great way to quickly build models of concepts without any setup costs, so changes can be made on the fly and the design process will be shortened as a result.

Another service that has taken off recently is Pokono ( This connects the independent designers with manufacturers all around the world to build parts for them. People without prototyping capabilities can have prototypes made within a week, and at a very reasonable cost. Additionally, these manufacturers are usually more sophisticated than the DIY'er at home, so they have larger more capable equipment that can do high volume runs for parts that are ready to go commercial. Pokono simply serves as the middleman, facilitating these connections between designers and builders. Once again, the individuals are empowered to work more quickly and effectively due to the greater access to manufacturing services.

I see a void here for advanced at home manufacturing, essentially the step between the makerbot and sending parts out to Pokono. This is the void I'm looking to fill. I'm pretty confident on the mechanical side, designing and building the physical units, but I'm at a distinct disadvantage on the controls side, where I have little experience. With enough time I'm sure I could wade through it and work something out, but I'm sure there are people who understand these things much better than I could, and can come up with truly elegant solutions. Over the next month I'll be refining this concept and developing the first round of designs. By the time next semester starts my goal is to have the mechanical aspects worked out for this advanced manufacturing setup, and then from there I'll start looking at the integration of controls to bring it all to life.

I'm looking forward to a very enjoyable month ahead.

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