Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Chris Anderson on Digital Manufacturing

Added on by Spencer Wright.

So, the "Seminars on Long-Term Thinking" podcast is awesome.  

Today I became engaged in a conversation about the future of manufacturing. It was in the context of my parts organizer spiel, which I tend to think (self importantly) is the basis of one aspect of a revolution of how we manage data on physical objects. My interlocutor - with a totally healthy degree of skepticism - questioned the breadth of what I was suggesting (which, dear reader, you're just going to have to imagine for now - I don't have the energy to describe it in full here). He pointed to the required complexity of a unifying theory for parts management, and asked to the basic premise that a single standard for parts data was necessary or useful. It was a totally fair line of reasoning, and one which I defended myself against in a marginal way at best.

It was a pure coincidence, then, that I returned home and listened to an excellent talk given by Chris Anderson about digital manufacturing. I'll skip right to the chase here: Anderson begins by describing the NUMMI factory, which was jointly run by GM and Toyota from 1984-2010, when it closed due to market pressure and disputes between its owners. What follows below are Anderson's words (emphasis is mine; photos are from google images):

That was ten, twelve years ago. And then Tesla bought that factory...for a song, and put in place another factory. This is what the Tesla factory looks like:

What you're seeing there looks superficially the same. You're once again seeing machines making cars. But the difference is that the NUMMI machines were custom - each machine did one job. And they were extremely hard to program, and very inflexible, and once you got the whole factory up and running, you didn't want to change it - you just churned it out, one after another. And every machine was different. The welding machines were different from the painting machines which were different from the stamping machines which were different from the sewing machines and the testing machines and the wheel-applying machines, etc.
What you're seeing [at the Tesla factory] is that all of the machines are the same. These are Kuka robotic arms, from Germany...but the point is that they are general purpose robots. Every car can be different. And today, the American car [factories], they could be making washing machines on the same line. These robot arms have these racks of different tool heads, and they can change their functions simply by going and grabbing a different tool, so they can be a welding robot or a bolting robot or a door-closing robot or a wheel-applying robot. And there is hardly a person to be seen on the floor.
What looks like a subtle difference - single purpose, specialized robots vs. general purpose robots - is actually transformative, because fundamentally what this allows is flexibility. And flexibility, I'm going to argue, is the key winning factor of the 21st century. Because flexibility allows you to move faster, it allows you to operate in smaller batches, and it allows you to personalize. Every Tesla can be different...So this is what digital manufacturing looks like on the industrial scale, and that's why this era of automation is different from the other ones.

Anderson goes on to discuss - with infectious enthusiasm - the Maker Movement, distributed fabrication, and his expectations for how manufacturing, creativity, and product development will change in the 21st century. I highly recommend his full talk. 

The net effect, though, is this: We need - and I plan on spending as much of my career as possible addressing - more general purpose solutions to the problems associated with hardware development and manufacturing.  

My focus on general purpose technologies is a large contributing factor to my wariness about the hype surrounding 3D printing. 3D printing is not a general purpose technology. And every bit of energy spent working on producing a better 3D printer just distracts from the tools that I believe will truly revolutionize hardware development and distribution. We need broader, more powerful tools - tools which interface with all manner of manufacturing processes, and which designers and consumers alike can plug directly into. 

The pieces are all here. 3D CAD has trickled down to all manner of consumers. Prototyping tools abound as well - and here I mean not some crappy FDM machine, but services like Rapid Machining and Shapeways. Distribution platforms are there as well, from Shapeways to Kickstarter to Etsy. 

What's needed now is to unite these all with a single layer. When all of these platforms speak the same language - and when Makers, designers, and consumers learn to do the same - then the third industrial revolution will begin to take shape.