Distributed Manufacturing (2): the potential of the Multimachine

Our second, and last, excerpt from Kevin’s excellent overview of current trends in distributed manufacturing.

Essay: The Homebrew Industrial Revolution. Kevin Carson. C4SS, 2009

(for citation sources, see original essay, which we recommend reading in full)

Kevin Carson:

“When it comes to the “Homebrew” dream of an actual desktop factory, the most promising current development is the Fab Lab. The concept started with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. The original version of the Fab Lab included CNC laser cutters and milling machines, and a 3-D printer, for a total cost of around $50,000.

Open-source versions of the Fab Lab have brought the cost down to around $2-5,000. One important innovation is the multimachine, an open-source, multiple-purpose machine tool that includes drill press, lathe and milling machine; it can be modified for computerized numeric control. The multimachine was originally developed by Pat Delaney, whose YahooGroup has grown into a design community and support network of currently over five thousand people.

As suggested by the size of Delaney’s YahooGroup membership, the multimachine has been taken up independently by open-source developers all around the world. The Open Source Ecology design community, in particular, envisions a Fab Lab which includes a CNC multimachine as “the central tool piece of a flexible workshop… eliminating thousands of dollars of expenditure requirement for similar abilities” and serving as “the centerpieces enabling the fabrication of electric motor, CEB, sawmill, OSCar, microcombine and all other items that require processes from milling to drilling to lathing.”

It is a high precision mill-drill-lathe, with other possible functions, where the precision is obtained by virtue of building the machine with discarded engine blocks….

The central feature of the Multimachine is the concept that either the tool or the workpiece rotates when any machining operation is performed. As such, a heavy-duty, precision spindle (rotor) is the heart of the Multimachine—for milling, drilling and lathing applications. The precision arises from the fact that the spindle is secured within the absolutely precise bore holes of an engine block, so precision is guaranteed simply by beginning with an engine block.

– being developed by the Iceland Fab Lab team, RepRap, CandyFab 4000 team, and others—then a CNC mill-drill-lathe is the result. At least Factor 10 reduction in price is then available compared to the competition. The mill-drill-lathe capacity allows for the subtractive fabrication of any allowable shape, rotor, or cylindrically-symmetric object. Thus, the CNC Multimachine can be an effective cornerstone of high precision digital fabrication—down to 2 thousandths of an inch.

Interesting features of the Multimachine are that the machines can be scaled from small ones weighing a total of ~1500 lb to large ones weighing several tons, to entire factories based on the Multimachine system. The CNC XY(Z) tables can also be scaled according to the need, if attention to this point is considered in development. The whole machine is designed for disassembly. Moreover, other rotating tool attachments can be added, such as circular saw blades and grinding wheels. The overarm included in the basic design is used for metal forming operations.

Thus, the Multimachine is an example of appropriate technology, where the user is in full control of machine building, operation, and maintenance. Such appropriate technology is conducive to successful small enterprise for local community development, via its low capitalization requirement, ease of maintenance, scaleability and adaptability, and wide range of products that can be produced. This is relevant both in the developing world and in industrialized countries.

The multimachine, according to Delaney, “can be built by a semi-skilled mechanic using just common hand tools,” from discarded engine blocks, and can be scaled from “a closet size version” to “one that would weigh 4 or 5 tons.”

More generally, a Fab Lab (i.e. a digital flexible fabrication facility centered on the CNC multimachine along with a CNC cutting table and open-source 3-D printer like RepRap) can produce virtually anything—especially when coupled with the ability of such machinery to run open-source design files.

– Flexible fabrication refers to a production facility where a small set of non-specialized, general-function machines (the 5 items mentioned [see below]) is capable of producing a wide range of products if those machines are operated by skilled labor. It is the opposite of mass production, where unskilled labor and specialized machinery produce large quantities of the same item (see section II, Economic Base). When one adds digital fabrication to the flexible fabrication mix—then the skill level on part of the operator is reduced, and the rate of production is increased. Digital fabrication is the use of computer-controlled fabrication, as instructed by data files that generate tool motions for fabrication operations. Digital fabrication is an emerging byproduct of the computer age. It is becoming more accessible for small scale production, especially as the influence of open source philosophy is releasing much of the know-how into non-proprietary hands. For example, the Multimachine is an open source mill-drill-lathe by itself, but combined with computer numerical control (CNC) of the workpiece table, it becomes a digital fabrication device.

It should be noted that open access to digital design—perhaps in the form a global repository of shared open source designs—introduces a unique contribution to human prosperity. This contribution is the possibility that data at one location in the world can be translated immediately to a product in any other location. This means anyone equipped with flexible fabrication capacity can be a producer of just about any manufactured object. The ramifications for localization of economies are profound, and leave the access to raw material feedstocks as the only natural constraint to human prosperity.

Open Source Ecology, based on existing technology, estimates the cost of producing a CNC multimachine with their own labor at $1500.62 The CNC multimachine is only one part of a projected “Fab Lab,” whose total cost of construction will be $2,000.

– This equipment base is capable of producing just about anything—electronics, electromechanical devices, structures, and so forth. The OS Fab Lab is crucial in that it enables the self-replication of all the 16 technologies.

Automated production with CNC machinery, Jakubowski points out, holds out some very exciting possibilities for producing at rates competitive with conventional industry.

– It should be pointed out that a particularly exciting enterprise opportunity arises from automation of fabrication, such as arises from computer numerical control. For example, the sawmill and CEB discussed above are made largely of DfD, bolt-together steel. This lends itself to a fabrication procedure where a CNC XYZ table could cut out all the metal, including bolt holes, for the entire device, in a fraction of the time that it would take by hand. As such, complete sawmill or CEB kits may be fabricated and collected, ready for assembly, on the turn-around time scale of days…. The digital fabrication production model may be equivalent in production rates to that of any large-scale, high-tech firms.

– The concept of a CNC XYZ table is powerful. It allows one to prepare all the metal, such as that for a CEB press or the boundary layer turbine, with the touch of a button if a design file for the toolpath is available. This indicates on-demand fabrication capacity, at production rates similar to that of the most highly-capitalized industries. With modern technology, this is doable at low cost. With access to low-cost computer power, electronics, and open source blueprints, the capital needed for producing a personal XYZ table is reduced merely to structural steel and a few other components: it’s a project that requires perhaps $1000 to complete.

Small-scale fabrication facilities of the kind envisioned at Factor e Farm, based on CNC multimachines, cutting/routing tables and 3D printers, can even produce motorized vehicles like passenger cars and tractors, when the heavy engine block is replaced with a light electric motor. Such electric vehicles, in fact, are part of the total product package at Factor e Farm.”

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