Digital fabrication & additive manufacturing 101

By now, most economic developers are familiar with the concept of 3D printing, which is essentially the use of machines (“printers”) that can slowly build layers of plastic to make physical objects. And while most of us think of this as a new exciting technology, a current media fascination with this technology is blinding us to a much more significant change in the way manufacturing works. The surprising reality is that the first commercial 3D printer was released in 1984 – and 3D printing is a 30-year-old technology from the era of Atari videogames, 8-track players and the Sony Walkman.Today, we are actually at the leading edge of a new kind of manufacturing, in which a range of high tech manufacturing tools are being combined to create “fabrication” spaces. These tools usually include 3D printers, but also a range of other equipment including CNC (computer numerical control) routerslaser cutters3D scanners and sophisticated software and hardware support systems. In essence, these new fabrication facilities allow innovative and entrepreneurial designers (often referred to in this space as “makers”) to create digital files describing objects and then to upload those files and direct the assembled machinery to produce a real-world version of the item described in the file. And where traditional 3D printing built solid objects by depositing layers of plastic, this new approach to “digital fabrication” or “additive manufacturing” allows makers to create complete working object, with moving parts, made from multiple materials.

While the technology is still evolving, Neil Gershenfeld, the head of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, has described the shape of the near future in striking terms. “Unlike 3D printers today, these will be able to build complete functional systems at once, with no need for parts to be assembled. The aim is not only to produce the parts for a drone, for example, but build a complete vehicle that can fly right out of the printer.” The implications for the manufacturing sector are staggering.  Traditionally, the sector has been based around large-scale facilities with expensive and specialized manufacturing equipment, relying on a large local workforce to staff the assembly line. Looking 20 years down the line, it becomes clear that this model may well go the way of the dinosaur. In a sense, digital fabrication will allow for the development of low-cost, locally-managed manufacturing facilities capable of building a wide range of highly-customized manufactured products. Under this model, the principal products of the digital manufacturing age become component materials and digital files. In essence, manufacturing shifts to a digital distribution model in which the entire industrial sector evolves to become more local, more entrepreneurial, and less capital (and facility) intensive. Manufacturing competitiveness becomes more closely linked to design thinking, entrepreneurial capacity, and the ability to create local spaces in which talent and skills to support this sector can be built.

Traditional manufacturing is not the only area that will be impacted. The American life sciences company Organovo has already developed “bio printers” capable of printing human skin, and other researchers have successfully “printed” human organs in the laboratory setting. From automobiles to consumer products to life sciences and beyond, this new approach to manufacturing will uproot and transform entire industries.  Indeed, NYU physicist Michio Kaku, author of The Physics of the Future, has suggested that a Star Trek-style replicator, capable of manufacturing most household items on the spot, should be commercially available by 2070.

So why should we care about this as economic developers? The exciting, frightening, nerve-waking reality is that digital fabrication is not some tool of the future. It has already arrived, and is beginning a very rapid, very fundamental reorganization of the manufacturing sector. At the same time, few of our communities have developed formal strategies or tactics for getting head of this curve or for understanding how to reap the economic benefits of this transformation.  This special issue of This is Not a Newsletter is a first attempt to ring the alarm bells and to begin to build tools and skills to help us manage the coming transition.

This post originally appeared in TINAN 49Subscribe to TINAN to get the latest economic development news and resources.