An Open Source Manufacturing Future

New technologies are increasingly enabling individuals to manufacture small-scale objects. How could ubiquitous fabrication complemented by a vibrant open source community change our relationship with everyday objects?

A few months ago, I listened to a talk by Chad Jennings where he discussed the upcoming shake-up around small scale manufacturing. This is due to the advancements in both 3D scanning and 3D printing. The things that can be accomplished with today’s 3D scanning/printing process is truly amazing and if the technology behind it follows the same trajectory as personal computing, these devices will be within consumers’ reach in the years to come. If that does come to be, what are the possibilities and implications of such a future?

3D manufacturing is at a transitional state. The tools to design 3D objects are plentiful but the hardware to actually create them are too expensive and complicated for the average consumer to own. This has led startups such as Ponoko and Shapeways to provide production services for individuals’ designs. Concurrently, we have seen organizations such as MakerBot pop up, which provides ideas and support for 3D printing of objects. What I consider to be the most intriguing project to spring out of the movement is Thingiverse which provides a community platform to share your 3D plans for making objects.

Many of the objects shared at Thingiverse are silly and mostly novelty. However, it only takes one practical object to see the potential. Take for example, this design for a Canon lens hood.

It does not take much creativity to consider all the other applications something like this could have. We are surrounded by small objects in our daily lives where the cost seems disproportionately higher than their production quality. Never before in modern times has there been a practical alternative to producing physical objects by consumers. If a person can go on the internet, download 3D plans for a doorstop and manufacture it in their apartment, what is the incentive to pay $5 at a store for the same thing? Simple things such as cups could be produced literally in-house to save people money and allow another outlet for personal expression. The cabinet you buy could come with files to reproduce all the parts in case one breaks. The possibilities are boundless.

This will not remove the possibility for profit, but it will force craftsmen and manufacturers to be significantly better than their open source competitors. Be that through service, aesthetics, function or manufacturing quality, something will need to differentiate their product from free options. This tension has been beneficial to all in the world of software, I see no glaring reason why it would not be equally helpful for physical manufacturing. Open source software leveled the playing field for millions of people in this world, imagine what open source manufacturing could do.

If you would have asked someone 30 years ago if there would be a personal computer in everyone’s home, they would have said you were crazy. Today, that is close to fact. Virtually every American household has access to a computational and connected device (whether it is a traditional PC, gaming console or mobile device). It may not be too far off to expect a 3D scanner/printer in most homes or at least in every community. Such a reality could bring a manufacturing revolution that could make the internet’s impact on business look microscopic.

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