The Third Great Revolution

The Economist in a recent article has declared digital manufacturing a Third Industrial Revolution stating

The first began in Britain in the late 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry. In the following decades the use of machines to make things, instead of crafting them by hand, spread around the world. The second industrial revolution began in America in the early 20th century with the assembly line, which ushered in the era of mass production. As manufacturing goes digital, a third great change is now gathering pace. It will allow things to be made economically in much smaller numbers, more flexibly and with a much lower input of labour, thanks to new materials, completely new processes such as 3D printing, easy-to-use robots and new collaborative manufacturing services available online.

Why this is so important, and critical to understand is just how big all of this will be, how fast it is growing, and how educational institutions can help guide and grow this effort into a worldwide industrial phenomenon that is the ultimate in the democratization of manufacturing.  This industry will involve the individual in the manufacture of objects from start to finish, from desktop to mailbox. It is an industry that has broad applications, and exciting possibilities.  Take the current rise of China as a manufacturing power; this has the capacity to shift the balance of power.

While 3-D printing technology has been used primarily for creating prototypes, often referred to as the “one off,” the industry is swiftly moving through this phase and into broader territory that includes everything from making organs that wont be rejected  to artists and artisans being able to either create their work in a broader mass produced way or to have their designs available for download much as we use i-Tunes to download music, which is itself a radical, even revolutionary approach to object making.  By broadening the tool kit for the manufacturers of tomorrow, we need first to prepare the students of today for the next big revolution that is coming. Well, in truth, its already here.

I will say that at first all of this was difficult for me to swallow.  I am a maker of objects, and while I am by no means a purist, the idea that I merely design an object in a CAD or 3-D software program was a bigger leap than I was used to. What I realized, though, is that it has always been the shock of the new that has always turned our stomachs, that made each new development in art or manufacturing that at first was rejected due to its newness but soon was embraced by the majority in due time.  In discussing the concept of 3-D printing with my students those who find the idea difficult to swallow are those who find being able to make things with their hands and not being manufactured, to be of prime importance.  Surely this is not something that would be displaced, but will open a new avenue for artists to make some artwork and craft objects.  Consider how great it would be to take a design you find online for a pendant that you can have in your hands later tonight by simply going to your computer room to have it printed.

A Quick Overview

Digital modeling is the next big thing. It grew out of a rather novel idea that you could substitute thermal setting polymers for ink, add two more directions in which the printer head could move (backwards and up and down), and you could have a simple device that would go from printing on paper to creating objects one “layer” or “slice” at a time.  All of this emerged out of the shops and labs of engineers eager to try something new.

For years, 3-D printers were entirely home made affairs, and the industry as it grows still retains a high reliance of self reliance and innovation.  In fact, many people still do make their own printers from scratch.  Some printers are made to create the parts for more of their own kind, which includes rubber, plastic, and even metal parts such as Prusa Mendell’s open source community project that has produced the Rep Rap, a device that easily creates three dimensional objects using an affordable footprint.  When you think about it, the possibilities aren’t just exciting, they are revolutionary in scope.  This is because 3-D printing puts the power of manufacturing in the hands of anyone with a printer and the know-how to design objects in virtual space that will wind up existing in the real world.  It is possible for the person with the right set of skills to be a virtual manufacturing resource for business both large and small as well as a source to the community at large who are now snatching up work being produced in this way.

The ability not just to model three dimensional looking objects on a computer, but to output a three dimensional artifact has far reaching consequences. Digital modeling tools have exploded in recent years alongside new devices that make it possible to actually PRINT an ever-broadening array of objects in more and more materials.  This process is called rapid prototyping, or RT for short,  and it has gone from extruding using a printer head filled with a thermal setting plastic to include printing molds for casting, organs for the human body, and intricate jewelry out of silver, gold, platinum and bronze.  This technology can make shoes, sculpture, car parts, and glass objects.  What’s more, with a few of the right digital tools on your computer, you could design your own cell phone cover  or create a lampshade the same way you might buy a song on i-Tunes.  The other leg of this type of manufacting does not include printing but a subtractive process using a milling machine which makes possible a broad range of objects to be made that are beyond the current scope of 3-D printers.  You will be able to  browse furniture designs just as you might browse for real furniture online except you can go pick up your newly made furniture from a local CNC shop just around the corner, and all of this is courtesy of a form of rapid prototyping.  Its safe to say that rapid prototyping isn’t about making prototypes anymore, but stand alone products out of the material of choice, be it metals, ceramics, plastics, or wood. The concept of mass production is being changed by this technology which creates objects one at a time but with incredible flexibility to the customer who might want very specific changes or design elements (such as color, shape, size, or material choice) as part of the product.  Now, instead of having to depend on the whim of designers to create an object in the right color or pattern, customers can simply order a single object with the options built into these individual objects.  This turns traditional manufacturing on its head and blends old world crafting with modern technology.  From where I sit, I cannot see for the life of me why this model wouldn’t work.  But the idea is new in its present form, so it can sometimes be hard to see the future from such a place.

Christopher Mims at MIT Technology Review , isn’t convinced.  He has said that:

This isn’t just premature, it’s absurd. 3-D printing, like VR before it, is one of those technologies that suggest a trend of long and steep adoption driven by rapid advances on the systems we have now. And granted, some of what’s going on at present is pretty cool—whether it’s in rapid prototyping, solid-fuel rockets, bio-assembly or just giant plastic showpieces.

But the notion that 3-D printing will on any reasonable time scale become a “mature” technology that can reproduce all the goods on which we rely is to engage in a complete denial of the complexities of modern manufacturing, and, more to the point, the challenges of working with matter.

Every revolution has its detractors, but rapid prototyping shows no signs of slowing down.  Its catching on in large part because it is fueling a democratization in manufacturing.  Yes, you can steal a pattern in the digital realm and make your own batman toy, but so too can you have the opportunity  to have your design purchased numerous times by individuals who would like to print their own version of your sculpture or jewelry, for example, even though they are in Hong Kong while you work in, say, Newport, Virginia. If you have a sense of collaboration in you as a designer, being able to build flexibility into your designs may well provide customers the option of creating alterations that you, the artist or designer, might never have considered but that offer a new level of usability and value to your customer base.   The applications are broad, and the implications, for the arts, are huge.  Precisely how this will all play out is hard to predict.

Many small companies now utilize rapid prototyping as a way to get a design to market faster and more cheaply. A design company can print its own pattern or prototype and have their artist or digital designer make the object ready for manufacture in another country.  Eventually, even the need for the prototype may well evaporate as the technology develops so that a manufacturer can print their own object or create the mold from a digital file absent even having a physical prototype. This is already being done in the casting industry, and it is significant because it effectively removes a very large step in a process that is thousands of years old. For small companies, this is a boon because it means that one artist can do the work of an entire division, which keeps the small company more nimble and more able to compete against companies ten times their size.

The idea that this is all just a flash in the pan or absurd is short sighted in my view.  The industry continues to broaden and shows no signs of letting up.  It is now possible to scan objects using a 3-d laser scanner, input them into software programs and modify them with great ease.  This is an application that has been used extensively by the movie and gaming industry in a way that merges both traditional and cutting edge technology to speed up the process of creating objects.    George Lucas in his second to last movie in the Star Wars trilogy revealed how he decided on a given character for the part of Dax, a four-armed creature whom Obi-wan Kenobi went to for some advice.  Lucas had his modelers who were trained sculptors, to create a series of models out of a material called sculpey.   Once Lucas decided which model he wanted, it was scanned using a 3-d scanner, and it was from this model that they then animated the figure while using all of the scan data as the foundation for the creature.  Granted, this was a reverse method, but a method that relies on a range of techniques both new and old school.  From this scanned object, Lucas Arts would have been able to send the file to a manufacturer in China to have the figure made as a Star Wars figurine.  It could have also been printed using a rapid prototyping machine to any scale the printer was capable of producing.  This is a process that alos allows artists with no skill or knowledge in the digital modeling tools to create a model in the same way that Henry Moore did just a generation ago and have it scaled up to any size the foundry is capable of handling.  The only difference between what Henry Moore had done and what is happening today is that if the artist has access to a 3-d scanner, s/he does not even need to ship the model.  It can simply be sent via ftp to the server for the foundry and the file opened and work begun on creating the patterns necessary to begin making something that was five inches tall into a fifty foot tall sculpture.

How does a 3-D printer work, and who makes them? The 3-D printer has emerged very much out of labs with people who have been interesting in tinkering.  While you can purchase a growing number of these printers at very broad price points, many choose to make their own. Printers, though, are now available for the same price as a laser printer.  Prusa Mendell, whom I have been following for a while now has developed open source software and the plans for making your own rapid prototyping machine or 3-D printer called a Rep Rap.  These cost about $350.00 to build from scratch, all parts and circuit boards, nozzles, control arms, and all the rest. I like this model because of how it puts the power of building the unit and using yourself in your hands; it has the great benefit of having an operator who understands how everything works because they put it together.  This is a great teaching tool. A broad range of materials can be used in these printers, from plastics, corn starch-based polymers, metals, as well as ceramic!  Below I include a video of a printer called a RepMan.

Not everything in this realm is printed, necessarily, and to understand its broad applications and implications, one needs to understand the machines used to manufacture in this “one-off” world.

For example, one very practical application of this technology involves a device known as a CNC machine, which stands for computer numerical controlled router.  Imagine a spinning cutter head that is mounted to an arm, like a robotic arm you often see in commercials where cars are going down the assembly line and are being welded.  This arm has the capability to move along three axis’s: X, Y, and Z (height width and depth).  This cutter can take a block of foam, or wood, or just about any other material that the cutter can cut, and it will follow the digital file perfectly, sculpting the material based on the data in the file used to do the cutting.  In sculpture, this is currently being done at foundries.  An artist’s model or maquette is scanned using a 3-D laser scanner.  This is done by slowly turning the model until all points are scanned in.  It is then loaded and the file prepped and sent to the foundry. There, using the same type of CNC machine, the technicians  cut the model faithfully out of a block of monolithic foam. Thus, a model that is only inches tall can be easily scaled to any size that the foundry can accommodate.  From there, molds are made in a refractory material that can stand up to the temperatures of molten metal.

The process of this type of industry is not limited to an additive process, but it can be subtractive, just as in the case of the CNC machine.  A printer adds material while a CNC machine takes it away. Both are computer aided machines that are using the data output from a program that was used to generate a 3-d model of an object.  Thus, not all rapid prototyping is just from a printer.  With several different processes in its toolkit, the RP industry is set to explode.

The thing to bear in mind with all of this is that a lot of this has been driven by a very different approach and philosophy of how to make things.  What has driven this have been small entities, individuals who, instead of profiting on the sale of millions of widgets,  profit from the sale of a small device that can make millions of widgets.  There is also a very strong tide of what is called community projects infusing the industry.  A “community project” means Open Source computer software and the hardware driven by these systems where nothing is proprietary and anyone can make changes to the code and are free to change or improve code or hardware in order to make it more useful for their purposes.  This has led to an industry where a rapid prototyping machine can actually be used to make another of its kind and users share their changes openly amongst their peers online in the interest of benefiting everyone.  This is huge.  Its huge because of how it democratizes industry.  Think about it;  you download plans for a piece of furniture that you like and you send it to the CNC machine at CNC R Us and it cuts out your pieces for you.  This is in the next town, and perhaps in your own basement or at Kinkos (or something very much LIKE Kinkos). You pick them up and assemble them using instructions attached to the file you uploaded a few days before, or you can have the shop assemble it for you and have the piece delivered.  Studios and shops like this can just make what they sell instead of keeping inventory on hand.  You do not have to wait for the product to be in stores.  You don’t have to wait for it to be shipped to the store.  You also do not have to rely on the efficiency of scale to be any part of your business model. Your furniture is also made by a company in your own community and chances are the money you spend will thus stay in your own community. Or, if it is not in your own community, you have the choice of who to have your new bicycle manufactured by.

Because of how the process takes place, entirely new kinds of objects that were nearly impossible to make using traditional methods are now emerging.  This will have some exciting results as new materials are utilized in the manufacturing process.  Materials that were not practical to use for certain applications may now find new use with this technology. What exactly happens will largely be up to those in the industry to determine.  With every new development in a technology there are always some surprises and interesting turns that happen.  For example, I use a material in my furnaces  that allows me to have very thin insulating walls in the equipment in my glass studio.  This was made possible by the technology developed for the space shuttle program.  I also use glass in a decorative way in my glass work that was developed by a company that was a subcontractor to NASA that wanted to create a filter for its lunar rover camera to protect the film from full sunlight.  I also use mittens to place hot glass into kilns using a material that was used initially in space suits and in the cabins of the space capsules during the Apollo program.  It is not always easy to know exactly what a new technology is going to yield us as results, but it is always exciting and usually a little surprising.

So what does the future look like?  What new innovations might come about as a result of this type of technology?  I think its a safe bet that nanotechnology will have a dovetail into this method of manufacture since materials developed for nanotech are so finely ground that they would make excellent printing material.  It will also mean that new materials can be used to make objects with exceptional strength.  A bicycle frame can be printed from the inside out which means that it might be made from a honeycomb material which is light weight but very strong.  What purpose might we have for a ceramic object doped with a magnetic material capable of surviving firing?  Could this fuel a new industry of smart objects capable of interacting with the machines that drive them for increased efficiency?  Perhaps, too, new materials that did not lend themselves to traditional manufacturing methods might work perfectly with a 3-D printer.  In truth, its very hard to say as the developments will be contingent on those free thinkers who are able to come up with new applications for such a technology. This is why the cutting edge of this technology fits in so well in the university setting.  This could lead to our seeing e a 3-D printer that can make glass objects without an external power source other than the sun, running in the deserts of Egypt, or Mars, using nothing but the local sand and a flux admixture.  In truth, this has already happened.

Markus Kayser has developed a solar sintering device that allows this very scenario to unfold.  You can forward the video to the 1:30 mark if you would like since it has a slow introduction, but the result is nothing short of  revolutionary.

With new developments in technology we can often be caught straining to imagine what the uses could be for the new process or material.  Just  ten years ago the thought of using a body scan and a 3-D printer to recreate the structure of a kidney in three dimensions would have sounded like science fiction,but this is exactly what is unfolding right now in the field.

The better positioned that we are to prepare as well as capitalize on this new technology, the better able we will be in carving out a niche for this growing industry that is right on our back door step.  The first step is to begin here in our universities and technical schools to build the toolbox for our students for the next phase of an exciting and burgeoning industry.  Those who are trained in this new technology will be like those people who received the training on how to work with the computer revolution that began gaining steam in the mid 1980’s.  We all know how important that period has proven itself to be, and now we are standing at the edge of another revolution in technology again.


UPDATE: 5/1/2014.  For those who are interested in the many printer models currently available for purchase and assembly, this site may help to give you a rounded review of the field currently: