Manufacturing guy-at-large.


Added on by Spencer Wright.

Over the past month I've mentioned my college major more and more in conversations about why I'm drawn to metal additive manufacturing. "Aside from trying to develop solutions for physical problems, I'm not an engineer," I'll say. "I studied Linguistics in college." I'm probably not the best judge of my intentions here, but I suspect I use this fact partly to highlight the authenticity of my enthusiasm (I've clearly selected this out as a topic of interest), and partly to set myself up as a Man From Mars. But in doing so, I end up downplaying what is an interesting thread in my career path - the desire to organize and understand data in ways that make it easier to do stuff.

I ended up in my first ling class - Syntax 1 - on a whim. I had a rather insufferable tendency to take random classes in college, most of which I'd skate through with curiosity but not a ton of drive. But Syntax was different. Where the philosophy classes I had taken were mostly concerned with arguing over opinions, and everything else seemed focused on teaching me facts, Syntax was about reasoning, pattern matching, and experiment design. Better yet, the data set at hand is literally infinite, and is accessible just by thinking up new sentences and comparing them with gibberish. I would spend hours doing this in my head: figuring out what the key variables to test a theory were, and then thinking up sentences that tested them. It was very compelling work.

Meanwhile, I had fallen in love with building things in the physical world. I was heavily involved in running a small bike shop during college, and took welding classes on the weekends. And when the opportunity arose to take time off school to run a small construction project for my parents, I jumped at it. Executing physical things - making the world more suitable for someone's needs - became a big part of my life, and when I finished my major I took on another, much larger, construction project.

Throughout my career (first in construction, then in manufacturing and product development), I've grappled with the uncertainty that the physical world brings. In linguistics (much like computer science) there's a high correlation between theory and practice. That's not to say that those fields are any easier to navigate - each presents more than its share of big challenges. But in the physical world there is a fundamental conflict between the accuracy and the resolution of what we can measure, and our ability to synthesize models for how things work is constrained by this. And even if we could overcome these fundamental uncertainties, a lot of the time you just get soot on the imaging system, and the whole experiment is rendered useless.

Somewhat separately, I've grappled with the toolchain used to coordinate physical projects. My first real experience with this was finding a decent plumber, but the same sense has followed me through manufacturing procurement, new product development, and small parts storage systems. The structures of the manufacturing and construction industries are idiosyncratic and not at all self-similar. Moreover, they turn over less quickly than those in linguistics (the study of language, not the language itself) and software development, where entire new paradigms can be developed and implemented in a matter of months. 

Today, additive manufacturing is right in the overlap in the Venn diagram of "subject to physical uncertainty" and "has a really disjointed toolchain." And the more I learn about the technology and the industry, the more it seems like the ideal place to witness - and have a meaningful impact in shaping - a new era for how human systems affect the physical world.

Of course it is key that people want the (purported) benefits that I hope metal AM will bring in this next few years. The work at hand, then, is to find applications where the value of AM is great enough to be commercially viable now - and then adjust their systems of production to fit the need. In other words: First, find what the pain points are in bringing 3D printed consumer products to market. Then, identify and organize the data flow in order to avoid & solve those pain points.

Of course, additive is just one of many sub-industries that I'd look forward to seeing the streamlined, integrated versions of. I still want a better way of finding a plumber, and I still want better ways of communicating what I want to him, and I still want more effective and efficient systems for him to organize his small parts inventory. Some of my favorite people are out there working on those problems right now, and I take every opportunity I can to help them along in some way. Because I see in them the same desire that I have: to organize data about the physical world in ways that make it easier for us to do good things there.

Hence, my desire to better understand physical urban infrastructure; my desire to help both Amazon and McMaster-Carr think about the way they're approaching the digitization of industrial supply; my frustration when today's procurement platforms simply digitize an opaque process without rethinking the role they play in product development; my tendency to draw parallels between "soft" robotics (think Baxter) and the supplier validation process. In all of these cases, I see - and am excited for - a significant shift in the way that information is used to understand and improve the physical world.

In my work in metal AM to date, I have tried to uncover the existing theories - rules of thumb, essentially - that most reliably produce parts today. I'm looking forward to continuing on that path, and to working with and around the engineers, researchers, and entrepreneurs at the boundaries of theory and the physical world today.