Tinkering back America

An episode of On Point on NPR caught my ear the other evening, inspired by a piece in the WSJ about the resurgence of tinkering in the US.  The stories highlighted people using increasingly accessible fabrication technology to design and make tangible stuff, and featured Makerbot, a FDM-based tabletop rapid prototyping machine designed by and marketed to hacker types.  Ashbrook focused on the question of whether this perceived increase in tinkering is basically just a human interest story, or whether the growing ranks of garage tinkerers might hold the key to getting the US economy out of the ditch.

The discussion glossed over some important distinctions which I think ought to be understood, especially relating to the idea that rapid prototyping machines can “make just about anything”, and that with this technology you can design and manufacture whatever you want.  I spent a few years in the MIT lab that invented 3D printing, and I have worked my entire career for companies that manufactured stuff or were attempting to manufacture stuff, so I have some background in this area.  The basic fact is that in most fields of engineeering there is a chasm of difficulty and effort at least two orders of magnitude wide that separates designing and prototyping some device, and developing volume-manufactured goods that can be sold at a profit sufficient to pay back the capital investment and keep the operation afloat.  Three-dimensional printing (and other related SFF techniques) are brilliant for making look-and-feel prototypes and reasonable short-term approximations to molded plastic components, but they are universally too slow, too expensive, and too limited in the palate of workable materials to be competitive for manufacturing.  At the MIT lab, one of the smartest engineers I know struggled for 10 years to find some angle by which 3DP could get beyond Rapid Prototyping applications, and out of the half-dozen startup companies that came out of the lab, the only one that ever attained any kind of escape velocity was Zcorp, the one focused on RP.  The closest 3DP came to manufacturing was the use of a Zcorp machine to print a complex plaster mold, which could in turn be used to pour aluminum castings, theoretically cheaper than the cost of alternative approaches.  This product was on the market at least for a while, and I think it could actually be a viable, but as I understand the effort stalled due to lack of vision on the part of the team attempting to execute it and the sclerotic nature of the casting industry.

The basic theme here is not just that SFF is effectively limited to prototypes and hacking (for which it is admirably suited, and by appearance the Makerbot is a brilliant achievement), nor that displacing established manufacturing technologies is hard to do.  More generally the point is that real product development and manufacturing is genuinely difficult, and not nearly so well suited to dorm-room tinkering.   The reasons are fairly fundamental.  Modern manufacturing has developed in a very competitive environment and benefited greatly from economies of scale; the basic techniques (such as injection molding, metal stamping, etc) are dramatically more cost effective and flexible than SFF, CNC machining, laser cutting, or other prototyping techniques, but they require massive machines costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and part-specific tooling costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Another basic issue is that many of the hacker types I know have a certain artistic bent, such that the stuff they make, while incredibly impressive and cool, often tends towards the expressive and offbeat, rather than having an end-user product focus.  Take for example the ubiquitous LED lighting projects, or the 10-foot long pair of wooden vice-grips, built for fun by my roommates when we lived in a warehouse in Central Square.  Some might even claim that pedal-powered cidering equipment falls in this category;-)

It could be fairly argued that I’m picking nits here; and I want to emphasize that the physical hacking trend is really awesome, it combines some of the most admirable human traits of creativity, resourcefulness, innovation, and the noble calling of salvaging and repurposing cast-off technology.  It gives people something to do that is active, engaging, and social, much more interesting than drinking beer and watching TV.  If industrial society ever collapses, this kind of ingenuity and hacking (which has been going on continuously under the radar in farm country all along) will become immensely more important.  And I do believe that the cost of doing real manufacturing is coming down and speeds increasing, probably mostly due to overseas competition – witness the rise of rapid low cost injection molding suppliers (where low cost is in the $3-10k range).  But the engineering that interests me most is the development of technology that enables the provisioning of basic human needs (food, shelter, heat, light, transportation, information) in a more energy efficient and environmentally friendly way.  And those areas seem to be the ones where competition, technology, and the economies of scale have been working hardest and longest.  To make a real impact requires scale, scale requires cost-competitiveness, and cost competitiveness requires all the tools that engineering brings to bear – which these days far exceed the capabilities of even the coolest CNC router, Arduino, and 3D printer.

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5 Responses to “Tinkering back America”

  1. Minimalism in its place « Five Islands Orchard Says:

    […] behind the orchard project, and most of the other stuff I do. While I’ve argued that the maker revolution is oversold, I think there’s a bright future for clever people engaging in low-input […]

  2. Open Source Ecology « Five Islands Orchard Says:

    […] fab) that by their nature have low upfront/tooling costs, and I’ve previously discussed the limitations of rapid prototyping as compared to conventional manufacturing on this blog. I have a suspicion that weld-your-own […]

  3. Ruben Says:

    I have been citing your articles on Rapid Prototyping recently, most recently at http://www.treehugger.com/gadgets/3d-printing-like-dot-matrix-printer.html

    You might enjoy the conversation.

  4. Ruben Anderson Says:

    http://www.notechmagazine.com/2016/11/human-powered-3d-printer.html

  5. Gunnar Rundgren Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Great post! I have written similar things on vertical farming and similar fantastic “innovations”.

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