Three Preconditions for Free Digital Manufacturing

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Dominic Muren of Humblefacture offers clear insight on the necessary preconditions for open and distributed manufacturing to become the next ecosystem for making things.

“We need to identify new methods and research directions which will lower the systemic barriers of entry to making. I believe that three primary directions exist for this exploration.

In order to be free to make what is appropriate for them, people must have appropriate knowledge, agency, and resources. The three pillars of Humblefacture address these needs:

1) Tools for making should be high information, not high energy. By far the most common response to someone who says we need to remake manufacturing is “but we can already make anything we want”. Modern industry may be able to make anything, but only with huge, expensive, proprietary, and specialized machinery. To illustrate what I mean, let’s do a little thought experiment, using Humblefacture’s Robot ally, Makerbot (for those of you not in the know yet, Makerbot is a low cost, open source machine which can fabricate plastic parts using 3d digital files). If we made three objects — one made by Makerbot, one made by injection molding, and one made by hand carving — what would the costs be?

Injection molding is cheap, but high initial cost(giant metal molds and machinery) and relatively inflexible, design-wise. Hand carving is flexible(it takes just as much effort to carve any old shape), but expensive, and requires a high degree of skill not available to most makers. Makerbot is more expensive than molding, but cheaper than carving(because of automation and reduced need for skill), and as flexible as carving.

Most importantly, sharing the descriptions of objects is easier than either molding or hand carving (which bolsters pillar 3). Ideally, a semi-skilled Humblefactory will use high data, flexible machines like Makerbot. However, plastic extrusion is only one type of fabrication we should be exploring, especially given plastic’s dubious compatibility with pillar number 2. We need computer controlled sewing machines, computer controlled composite layup machines, and other machines we haven’t even thought of!! Any making technology can be made more useful through the use of computer numeric control.

2) Language should be a commons, therefore, the vocabulary of making must be a commons. Imagine what it would be like if you had free speech, but only within the narrow confines of a few select words and phrases. You might be allowed to say anything you wanted, but you wouldn’t be able to. Similarly, makers today suffer very few explicit restrictions on what we can or cannot make (some types of firearms and explosives are restricted). This does not mean we are able to make anything. Take the example of Thomas Thwaites, who for his graduate thesis endeavored to make a toaster from scratch. Don’t laugh, it’s not as easy as it looks. Indeed, it’s not as easy as it looks to make nearly anything, because we rely so much on far away, high energy, toxic, dangerous, or rare materials which through the magic of the global market economy become affordable at some hidden expense. Instead, Humblefactories will need to resurrect, discover, and develop materials, processes and tools which can be made we need to use tools, materials, and techniques that are available to local populations without large infrastructure development.

3) Objects should be composed of modular, interoperable components. Forget design for recycling, or disassembly. Think more about design for co-opting, hacking, reintegration, etc. Think about how object oriented programming enabled the open source software movement. Great communities like SourceForge are made possible because participants can share not only knowledge and assistance, but packets of code which can be dropped into new programs. Just as with programming, where libraries for graphics, sound, I/O, or printing allow quick generation of new programs, modular power supplies, drive trains, displays, wheels, and other parts would relieve the need for everyone to design everything. Instead, each designer creates what they are best at, and the group benefits from many exceptional components to combine however they see fit. This is perhaps the most complex of the pillars, because it requires standards to be set across many different disciplines — electronics, software, mechanisms, and power systems. But, ad-hoc groups have created pretty amazing standard-sets before (think of TCP, IP, HTTP, FTP, not to mention standardized bolt threads, battery sizes, and others).

By combining Flexible Fabricators, Appropriate Materials, and Shareable Modules, a humblefactory will be able to make an almost infinite variety of objects to respond to whatever new problems arise to confront it. More importantly, because the makers using these techniques are empowered to make more choices and control more material and part fabrication themselves, they will have more input on what social, toxicological, and environmental costs are reasonable for their local situation. Just as in nature when local populations evolve to better use their resources and work within their ecology, so will humblefactory-equipped communities be better able to provide for their needs from their local capacity.

Humblefacture’s mission is to work bring together as much information as possible on the progress toward making these three pillars a reality.” (