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.
MakerBot may have brought 3-D printing into the home, but now other companies are trying to do the same with other technologies that have been around for a while at the industrial level, like CNC milling. It’s so old that even its name is archaic, standing for Computer Numerical Control, a relic from the days when the machines were run by a punched tape. Now desk-sized milling machines are coming on the market for about the same price as a MakerBot, and instead of plastic, you can work with metal and wood. As noted in Fast Company, machines like the new Othermill can do a lot more.
“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.”
I suspect it will be greater than that. Why ship a flatpack design from Sweden to China and then ship it all the way back here when you can get the design you want from any designer in the world, and then just go to the 3-D Kinko's or whatever down the street and get it routed out? Forget shipping, showrooms and inventory. In the near future, we will do it all with local digital fabrication.

Related on MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

3-D printer is merely a hint of the revolution to come
In a new world of digital fabrication, computer-driven tools of all kinds will change the way we make things.