Advances in Desktop Manufacturing

How realistic is it to foresee substantial advances in the distribution of the means of production, in particular as a result of advances in desktop manufacturing?

According to Lawrence J. Rhoades at the National Academy of Engineering (U.S.), this is in fact the very “The Transformation of Manufacturing in the 21st Century” that is in the works right now.

His conclusion is that “The new industrial revolution will enable people to live where they like and produce what they need locally.”

We choose two citations of this really key article:


“Phil Dickens, a professor at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom and an enthusiastic supporter of distributed digital technology, predicts that, “The impact of rapid manufacturing will be so profound, changing the way products are designed, manufactured, and distributed, that it can be described as the next industrial revolution.” Unlike the first industrial revolution, which led to a migration to population-dense cities (a trend that continues in emerging industrial economies), this revolution will enable people to live where they like and produce what they need locally. Distributed digital production is the antithesis of the production line (e.g., “a factory in the home” or at least “in the neighborhood”) where people will “pay for the plans, not the product,” as described by John Canny, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Digital production (or rapid manufacturing) transforms engineering design files directly into functional objects—ideally, fully functional objects. This technology emerged from rapid prototyping systems that first produced nonfunctional, “appearance models” (limited-use, engineering-design and marketing aids made from nondurable plastic materials). Over time, the plastic materials were strengthened until the models became fairly functional. However, the real-world benchmark materials for full functionality in manufacturing are metals.

Currently, most of the companies in the world that produce systems capable of free-form fabrication of metal components are in the United States. The ProMetal Division of my company (Ex One), for example, produces systems specifically dedicated to making metal components.

At the large end of the spectrum, metal parts can be made by using these processes to produce nonmetal casting molds. The same sand and binder that were used for years in conventional pattern-based sand casting can be 3D printed to provide precise, complex-geometry sand casting molds and cores without patterns; thus, one-off design metal castings for automotive engines can be produced in two days instead of two months. A 1.5 x 1 meter layer can be produced every minute. With 0.2-mm layers, roughly one liter of sand can be processed every three minutes, printed or not; typically, about a liter of printed sand molds and cores can be produced every 10 or 15 minutes.

At the other end of the spectrum, machines with a build-box the size of a matchbox can produce half a dozen gold dental copings (the part of a dental crown that fits precisely on the tooth) every hour. Thus, a dental laboratory can produce a more precise, less expensive dental restoration in one or two days, instead of a week.

Military spare parts can now be made when and where they are needed, as can custom-designed architectural hardware, gold jewelry, customized trophies, and parts for vintage cars. This tool-less process can even be used to make tools. Forging dies for short-run spare parts can often be made faster and cheaper than finding dies that already exist.”

Citation 2, the Conclusion:

Distributed digital production, a category of processes evolving from rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing, free-form fabrication, and layered manufacturing, is a harbinger of twenty-first-century production, which is dramatically different from the kind of “manufacturing” we know today. The fundamental nature of distributed-digital processes—the construction of functional metal work pieces by assembling elemental particles, layer by layer, with no instructions other than the computer design files widely used to define objects geometrically—is based on different assumptions than those that drove manufacturing and distribution strategies throughout the twentieth century.

The United States has an early lead in these emerging technologies, partly as a result of creative work at some of the nation’s best universities (e.g., MIT, University of Texas, Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, University of Southern California, University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University) and Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratories. The U.S. lead is also the result of the visionary spirit of technology-focused entrepreneurs who head and back companies that are pioneering these new technologies. However, the biggest factor has been the impetus provided by the U.S. government, principally the U.S. Department of Defense, which has much to gain from the development of processes for building spare parts and new products flexibly and without cost sensitivity to production volumes. Whether or not the United States maintains and strengthens its leadership position and realizes the benefits of these processes may depend on the outcome of the current debate on the role of government in providing a national “manufacturing technology infrastructure.”

As the costs and wait times of tooling, programming, and “designing for manufacturing” are reduced and then eliminated, the perceived advantages of high-production volumes, concentrated manufacturing sites, and complex distribution logistics will yield to the advantages of distributed digital production—products designed to meet the specific preferences of individual customers that can be produced on or near the point of consumption at the time of consumption (e.g., automotive spare parts produced at a dealership).

The design freedom enabled by constructing objects in thin layers from particles with dimensions in microns will significantly reduce a product’s component-parts count. This, in turn, will reduce product weight by eliminating attachment features and fasteners and optimize functionality by eliminating excess material and wasted energy. The particles that are not needed for the part produced can be recycled to become the next—maybe very different—part. The metal in older, no longer useful products can be locally recycled to become metal powder feedstock for tomorrow’s production. Thus, inventory carrying costs and risks and transportation costs can be dramatically reduced, increasing savings in energy, materials, and labor.
Finally, because these processes are highly automated, the size of the workforce required to produce and deliver manufactured products to the customer will be greatly reduced. Consequently, low-cost, so-called touch labor will lose its competitive advantage in the production of physical objects.

The demand for innovative product designs will expand dramatically. And, because ideas will be delivered electronically, designers can be located anywhere. As design for manufacturing becomes less important, and because design superiority will be gained principally through understanding and responding to customers’ tastes, designers might want to be located near their customers.

Even if products are designed remotely, however, production will be done locally. Physical objects will be produced “at home” or “in the neighborhood” from locally recycled materials. Thus, cities will lose their economic advantage, and urban populations will be dispersed.

Although the revolution promised by these technologies could have great benefits for consumers in developing countries, the economic advantages of manufacturing in areas with comparatively cheap labor will be ultimately unsustainable, and workers in poor countries are likely to suffer. Consequently, our energy and creativity must also be focused on finding other paths to economic parity in the value of equivalent human labor to hundreds of millions of low-wage workers throughout the world.”

2 Comments Advances in Desktop Manufacturing

  1. AvatarDerek Elley

    What a wonderful story.

    We also believe personal manufacturing is here – right now!

    There has been quite a lot of focus on the hardware, but what about the common platform? Where is the access point for the masses to be able to participate?

    Currently the barrier to entry for the mass market is too high. It’s not necessarily the cost of the 3D printers (they are now less costly than the first PCs in the ’70s (in real terms), but it’s the ‘killer app’ if you like.

    And there is contstant talk of the the killer app – ie, the ‘downloadable plans’.

    We are really excited to offer the world the first place to buy and sell “digital products”. So if digital manufacturing hardware people read this please contact me to discuss… when iTunes sells more and more digital music, Apple sells more and more iPods. In the same way when Ponoko sells more and more digital product, the more digital manufacturing hardware will be sold.

    We are looking for partners to be able to promote your hardware to our users.

    Derek Elley

  2. Pingback: » Mass Customization and Personalization News » Lawrence J. Rhoades on Desktop Manufacturing

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.