We recently covered the story of the troubles at MakerBot, and how people were having trouble finding really useful things to do with them, and more trouble doing them well. This was saddening but not unsurprising; home 3-D printers could make little things out of plastic, but that’s it.
However, 3-D printing was only one form of what I used to call downloadable design, and now call digital fabrication, where designs can be exchanged around the world and produced anywhere. Or as Matt Compeau and Bi-Ying Miao of the Hot Pop Factory, at the cutting edge of digital fabrication note:
In an era of digital prevalence where personalized data flows freely across the globe, our physical world seems to trail decades behind…. however as manufacturing evolves with digital fabrication tools like 3-D printing, laser cutting and CNC milling, a whole new breed of artifacts can emerge.
“Once you can cut metal, you can make things that last,” says Danielle Applestone, chief executive of Other Machine Co. “For the first couple of months that I was working here, I was scared of cutting with metal. It was louder, I was worried I was going to break the tool. But as soon as I jumped in, it quickly became like wax to me. Metal is power, it really is,” she says. “You don’t go back.”
That's no 3-D printer; it's an Othermill. (Photo: Lloyd Alterl)
Back at the Hot Pop factory, they have moved from 3-D printing to laser-cutting, building stuff that couldn’t possibly be done by hand. They are building forms “algorithmically sculpted into an amorphous laser-cut entity that undulates as the viewer moves around it.”
Laser cutters, CNC routers and millers open up a world of possibilities that go way beyond what a 3-D printer can do. I am not sure it makes sense to own any of them, but suspect that a neighborhood shop with a range of tools would do very well, just like Kinko's used to when laser or color printers were not common in the home or office.
That’s when we will begin to see the real change in design and manufacturing. As Mark Hatch of TechShop, a chain with eight shops full of laser cutters and 3-D printer notes in Fast Company,
“We believe that a substantial set of the economy—5, 10, 15%—will give way to locally produced materials, local artists co-creating with consumers,” Hatch says. “And they’ll leverage this combination of design tools and computer-aided manufacturing to do it.”
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