Digital technology is making it possible to manufacture on an ever smaller and more local scale, and as E&T discovers, a second industrial revolution could be brewing as people take advantage of what's being called personal fabrication to invent, innovate and learn new skills.
Fifty years ago, printing was synonymous with giant machines bearing names such as Heidelberg and Linotype. Those machines still exist for the likes of newspapers - and indeed E&T magazine, but these days they are vastly outnumbered by the personal printers that are now in pretty much every home and office.
Could the factory be about to go the same way? Just as digital technology broke the stranglehold of the printers' guilds, it is now enabling a whole generation of smaller-scale factory technologies, from 3D additive and subtractive manufacturing to cutting, surface-mount and even robot assembly. And just as printers are now everywhere, the vision is of a new industrial revolution of local, on-demand, customised production.
So far, the process has reached the level of the printing bureaus common in the latter half of the 20th century. Perhaps the highest profile example is FabLab, a worldwide network of easy-access, high-tech workshops (or fabrication laboratories) where 'almost anyone can make almost anything'. There are many others though, such as London's Metropolitan Works, which aims to bring advanced digital technology to the creative industries.
The next step will be the equivalent of the departmental copier or home printer. HP, which helped kickstart the office printing revolution with its LaserJet, hopes that its recent release of 3D printers and marketing clout will similarly bring the concept of rapid prototyping to a whole new audience.
The enthusiasts and hobbyists are there already, mind you, with open source projects such as the RepRap and CupCake CNC desktop 3D printers (see our interview with RepRap founder and lead developer Dr Adrian Bowyer in the boxouts on the right). These are mostly designed for users to build from kits, but enterprising manufacturers such as A1 Technologies have also reworked them into cheap and ready-to-use 3D printers for schools and small businesses.
What really makes this technology work is the involvement of the individual, says MIT's Professor Neil Gershenfeld, the man behind FabLab. 'Digital fabrication is personal fabrication,' he says, adding that for him it's like the decline of the mainframe, when users were no longer forced to go through the data processing department for everything data-related.
'FabLabs are the stage between mainframes and PCs, when you have minicomputers that you could share. In 20 years, we'll make it so you can have the technology at home,' he says.
He adds: 'We find very very broad interest. These are inventive people - it's a school for invention. In a sense it's elitist, but it's more democratically elitist. The users do projects, there are no engineers as such in the lab.'
For FabLab supporters such as Spirit Aerosystems, it is all about promoting invention, building multidisciplinary people and the development of truly broad skillsets.
'Twenty-first century competencies are a different skillset. The people we want aren't one-dimensional silo degrees, it's the kind of people that come from FabLabs,' explains Chris Wilkinson, Spirit's engineering and business assurance director, and a trustee of Manchester FabLab backer The Manufacturing Institute.
Wilkinson continues: 'A lab like this would be trivial to set up, but it would be sterile without the ecosystem of people - it's people unconstrained, inquisitive, creative. It's 'I want to do this', not 'My degree taught me that's impossible'. It's the input of different people and the nurturing of the collaborative network that connects all the FabLabs.
'I see the low barrier to entry as a way to stimulate ideas - but it's also giving people the knowledge that they can actually make things, not just come up with ideas. I told some Manchester school girls about 10-year-old girls in Boston making jewellery to sell, and within an hour they were designing their own versions.'
Simply teaching people what's possible with advanced digital manufacturing technologies can be a huge enabler for creativity, design and innovation, argues Ed Alves, the technical manager at Metropolitan Works. He is more cautious though about how many will actually need fabrication technology.
'I don't see digital personal fabrication as the future, I am one of the few people in rapid prototyping who says that,' he says. 'I don't see a need for things like 3D printers to become ubiquitous, people's lives are cluttered enough already. And even if it does happen, it is probably 20 years away - the technology is still too unfriendly and it tends to be fairly expensive, though there are a few people using rapid prototyping for short runs.
'Where I see it headed is mass customisation, for instance Clark's shoe-shops already have 3D scanners for your feet. I think the technology will become ubiquitous among tradespeople, for example a plumber could print a u-bend or an electrician a conduit, but it will mostly be in the hands of professionals.
'There will be personal fabrication for the serious hobbyist, but that is a small percentage. And while services such as Shapeworks are supposed to be idiot-proof and do have a certain novelty value, most people aren't trained designers.'
Then again, Metropolitan Works is somewhat better equipped than a FabLab. Where each FabLab has some $50,000-worth of equipment - admittedly, doing the work of $200,000-worth, says Gershenfeld - the former represents an investment nearer $2m. It is actually the Digital Manufacturing Centre of London Metropolitan University, which in turn evolved out of the London College of Furniture - which is why it has a full woodworking machine shop as well as 3D printing, scanning and routing, plus laser and waterjet cutting.
Like the FabLabs, Metropolitan Works does outreach work, running courses to introduce artists, architects, product designers and others to digital fabrication technology, and it offers its services to local businesses too. The difference is that where FabLab wants its users to learn the technology too, Metropolitan Works has its own technical staff able to offload as much or as little as the customer wants.
'Artists are all at different stages,' says Alves. 'We've been running courses to demystify the technology - you show them what's possible, and then they come up with ideas. They don't have to understand how it works, just see how they could use it.
'While the technology is just a tool, you still need to be able to design for the process and figure out which process is best for you. We've had people come in wanting rapid prototyping, when it was not appropriate for what they wanted to do.'
He adds that in his view, digital fabrication is still too new and complex to be put in the hands of the average consumer. The technology is barely 25 years old and has only begun to mature in the last decade - and even now, machines are designed for engineers and industrial designers, not consumers.
The two big issues he sees are preparing the data - you need high-end CAD to do more than download designs or use only basic geometries - and the fact that each 3D printing technology can only handle a subset of the available media. For example, to cover its customers' needs, MetropolitanWorks needs four different types of printer - one for nylon functional parts, another for 3D models, a third for metal and a fourth for high-resolution parts in castable resin for mould-making.
FabLab's fans are unfazed by these issues, however. Neil Gershenfeld foresees an era when designers will go to market by shipping data, not products, and says the spread of personal fabrication could make ownership of the means of production obsolete, much as the Web has begun to sideline the library.
In the home
So could personal fabrication go all the way to the home? Up to a point - the technology will have to come on a bit before you could have a small-scale laser or waterjet cutter, but that is equally true of bandsaws or circular saws, say. Perhaps it is as simple as some tools making sense in a DIY context, while others really belong in a workshop.
It is coming though - indeed, for the early adopters, personal fabrication is already here. In the long run, giving consumers the ability to print in 3D at home will probably create clutter, not innovation. However, digital fabrication harnessed to skills, collaboration and invention could yet create a second industrial revolution. Whichever way it goes, interesting times lie ahead for manufacturing.