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Digital fabrication & additive manufacturing 101

Image via Flickr user aurelie ghalim (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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) routers, laser cutters, 3D 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.

Image via Flickr user Keith Kissel (CC BY 2.0).

Making Makers: Transforming skills development, igniting creativity, and building our future

Perhaps you’ve heard about the dilemma facing many communities, local businesses and job seekers. Termed the skills mismatch,  thousands of jobs are going unfilled and thousands of people remain unemployed, resulting in significant lost revenues and earnings. Addressing the skills mismatch goes beyond simply getting people into training programs. It's about creating a resilient, skilled and engaged workforce that has the capacity drive economic development. At the same time, the maker movement is growing across the globe and will affect learning and training in ways that have perhaps not even been articulated yet. When thinking about developing the next generation of workers, the birth of FabLabs, hacker spaces, tech shops, and maker spaces will change how people will become the leaders, inventors, scientists, developers, and entrepreneurs of the future.

As the “new industrial revolution” based on additive manufacturing begins to take hold, we’re confronted with an old economic development challenge:  we have lots of eager workers in our communities, but their skills and experience are not well-aligned with the demands of the new economy. This skills mismatch poses one of the greatest challenges to the successful adoption of maker technologies. Put simply, how do we make makers?

Perhaps we can begin by focusing on the skills that makers need. On the one hand, there’s a basic competency in “tinkering” that’s required – from metal bashing to machining to materials fabrication, “making” is a hands-on, nuts-and-bolts kind of activity – and our educational spaces need to reflect this. When we wanted to teach computer skills, we started putting computer labs in high schools and colleges, and opened hundreds of public access CAP sites across the country. Now we need to do the same for public access maker spaces.

In part, this probably has to be achieved at an early stage in the educational process, a fact that is already driving changes in the curriculum in the United Kingdom. A prime example of this can be seen in the South End Technology Center in Boston, where inner city users have been exposed to digital fabrication technologies at a young age, often with spectacular results. The organization FabLab@School is another great example of how FabLabs can be integrated into elementary and secondary school education around the world. A third example can be found in The Exploratory, which works to bring opportunities for students to learn through making and tinkering to prepare them for "jobs not yet created using technologies not yet invented..." A report on South Africa’s experience in utilizing a FabLab to increase participation in the STEM fields offers some great insight into a real application of teaching these skills in schools.

The biggest dilemma we face today is that both the decision makers who fund education and the teachers and trainers who provide it are generally not aware of the maker phenomenon, much less equipped with the tools to nurture it. However, if we can marshal support to create the learning infrastructure – the FabLabs, maker spaces and digital systems – then this space can also be used for the reskilling of older workers.  And in this sense, the workforce redevelopment opportunities are significant. It’s hard to retrain older workers for a digital and highly technical field like software development. But maker technologies rely on both information technology AND the ability to operate machinery and understand manufacturing processes.  Many of the workers who have been laid off, displaced or otherwise downsized in the North American economy may well have the basic skills required for success in this new manufacturing economy.

Building the foundation for digital fabrication: A real-world example

Image via Flickr user aurelie ghalim (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Despite recent popular interest in 3D printing as a transformative technology, assembly of a full suite of digital machines like those mentioned in the first article (e.g. computer-controlled laser cutters and numerically-controlled precision milling machines) and software tools offering capabilities that 3D printers don’t have is required to fully support digital fabrication opportunities.

Since 2005, Fox Valley Technical College has been home to the FVTC FabLab, part of the global network of MIT-managed FabLabs. FVTC offers inventors, students, and businesses access to leading-edge fabrication technologies and the shared global knowledge and training in the FabLab structure, and tailors the facility and services to meet the existing and nascent needs of Wisconsin’s industry drivers and future entrepreneurs. In addition to experiential learning for students and outreach to middle and high schools, the facility offers a full suite of funding and business support (e.g. proof-of-concept prototyping and mentoring) through strategic local partners (e.g. Venture Centre) and facility staff.

Since its launch, the FVTC FabLab has been named as un-funded co-inventor in 11 patent applications and awards, generated over 500 initial, virtual, and feasibility prototypes (e.g. Deuce Mop Wringer), and resulted in an additional $250,000 in economic development impact generated for regional industry and government, including commercially available products (e.g. Safety Sewer Drain) for niche or specialized applications.

The evolution of digital fabrication to the creation of complete functional systems in a single process is still decades away. However, the makerspaces or FabLab facilities that align with the needs of the local economy and combine existing digital manufacturing technologies with local and global knowledge and business support networks are likely building the basic foundation that will allow them to move quickly as new innovations in digital fabrication emerge.

Image via Flickr user Maciej Wojnicki (CC BY 2.0).

Employment Development Index September 2013

Employment Development Index September 2012

Our Employment Development Index is a visual representation of changes in regional employment figures over time.

The Ec Dev 2.0 Digital Tools

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