Manufacturing comes home

The factory goes small scale. New digitally managed 3D printers, desktop lasers, CNC milling machines and waterjet cutters open unforeseen possibilities for do-it-for-yourself enthusiasts and small businesses. New cottage industries are born. Welcome to the age of personal manufacturing.

Hand tools have never been more affordable than today. They are more precise, versatile, flexible and powerful than tools some ten to five years ago.  Those small hand tools are more often cordless due to improved lithium-ion batteries. Thanks to ever-cheaper digital circuits, components and CPUs they are increasingly intelligent. The combination of new materials and ever shrinking digital electronics has created new product categories. Take for example the scorpion saw, which has properties of cordlessly powered handsaw and jigsaw in the same tool. 

The best known of the new desktop manufacturing systems are 3D-printers, but there are many more innovative tools for DIY and workshop use. Massive CNC router tables have long been an essential part of machine park in the engineering industry. Now they have gotten alternatives. Some new desktop CNC models cost just some 2000 euros - even cheaper kits for small workshops and home users are available. 

Desktop miniaturization also applies to other machines previously used only on the factory floor. Desktop laser cutters, desktop waterjet cutters, digital robotic fabrication systems and automatic circuit assembly machines have come to market recently. All those desktop tools open opportunities for small enterprises and households with radically lower capital costs. 

When 3D printers are “additive” manufacturing tools, the CNC milling machines are the opposite. With the 3D printer you build 3-dimensional objects adding plastic or resin layer on top of the previous layer.  Most other desktop machines work the opposite way, they remove or cut material. Take for example numerically controlled milling machines which drill or carve parts of medium like metal, wood or plastic with exact precision. CNC machines have for a half century made possible to cut complex shapes automatically from almost any material in the manufacturing industry. They do this by moving their spindle and attached cutting tools on two or more axis. Now this capability comes economically available to DIY hobbyists and small workshops.

New digital desktop manufacturing stations or tools have some common characteristics besides the low price point. They are small compared to their industrial ancestors, but they are often as versatile in functions as their 10 - 20 times more expensive cousins. They are slower than their bigger cousins, and the small desktop construction may not be as durable. They may also have fewer automatic functions than most industrial class versions.  However, their precision and intelligence make it for the first time possible for almost anyone to have a small factory at home basement. 

Industrialization that began in Britain in the late 1700s marked a shift to highly specialized machines and mass production. New numerically controlled tools like 3D printers and robotic arms open possibilities to a new level of craftsmanship, where the end product is unique and at the same time looks even more finished than a product that comes from a state-of-the-art factory.

New smart tools may even lead to an entirely new phenomenon or trend, which I would like to call "telemanufacturing." The term is comparable to the concept of telecommuting. We see a glimpse of telemanufacturing already on the internet, where various fab shops make 3D printed and laser carved products from your uploaded digital drawings. You need only a good idea and digital drawing skills. Net connections are already ubiquitous in the developed world and coming soon even to most distant places. 

 

Makerspaces are open for innovation

Another alternative for buying tabletop fabrication system for yourself is to visit the nearest Makerspace. Makerspaces are a new worldwide phenomenon for hobbyists and DIY people. 

Makerspaces, which are also called hackerspaces and innovation labs, act as public workshops, where makers share tools. Makerspaces often more professional tools like 3D printers than what many can afford at home. There are many Makerspaces also in Nordic countries. There are Makerspaces in Sweden, places like Stockholm Makerspace or Makers in Trollhättan. There are similar spaces and Hacklabs also in Finland, for example in Helsinki and Espoo.  The same applies to Denmark. The country has a dense network of fablabs, Makerspaces and Hacklabs. The terms overlap, but all those places provide tools and facilities to create something new with your hands. 

The number of Hackerspaces and Makerspaces is growing rapidly almost everywhere. Politicians and investors see them as good investments for future growth. In Norway, DNB Savings Bank Foundation has donated 390000 euros to establish ten Makerspaces around the country.

Those services and new desktop machines make work easier for independent professionals like toolmakers, carpenters, jewelry makers and repair shops. Some spare parts for old machines and vintage cars may be tough to find but with new numerically controlled tools new replacement parts may be easily printed, carved or cut at the workshop. Sometimes time savings can be significant. Some missing gear, for example, can be made at the shop in few hours or even in minutes instead of waiting for courier delivery several days. 

For product developers and prototype builders new tools provide just shorter development cycles. The developer can build first models at the company workshop, and the iteration of product prototypes goes forward fluidly. 

 

The trend favors 'prosumers'

For home repairs and improvements new digital hand tools as well as desktop tools have also opened new opportunities. Affordable tools and net based DIY instruction from various websites and services like YouTube have already dramatically lowered house repair costs in many households. The trend shows in the economy. In the United States, home improvement stores have already fared much better than department stores and discounters. There may be many explanations for this trend, but one very probable is that fixing and enhancing your house has never been easier or more affordable. 

Futurist Alvin Toffler described this new trend already in the 1980s in his famous book 'The Third Wave.' He saw many forces subtly moving us toward the geographical dispersal of production and visualized us living in the electronic cottage. Toffler wrote about new production system, which could shift millions of jobs out of the factories and offices to turn back to homes. 

“We see a progressive blurring of the line that separates producer from consumer. We see the rising significance of the prosumer”, Toffler stated. 

New DIY tools create new possibilities also for those, whose aim is to have a more self-sufficient lifestyle, where the household creates more economical and technological independence from the society.  

Thanks to ever cheaper digital components and readily available instructions we have come to a point where some do-it-yourselfers can even build their own numerical CNC, 3D printing and laser cutting tools. Instructables.com provides an example of this trend, a project where you can build a Raspberry Pi controlled CNC machine with a total cost of under 600 euros. It is not bad when professional CNC machines prices vary from some 5000 euros to hundreds of thousands. In many cases both machines can be very smart - CNC manufacturers can today use superclass computing power in their machines under 100 euros and provide smartphone access to the whole fabrication system. 

These new 3D printers, desktop CNC tables and personal laser cutters are in technological and market sense 'early birds,' comparable to personal computers in the early 1980s. One can only imagine what kind of capabilities and possibilities they offer to small workshops in the future. New multifunction units that combine robotic arms, laser, cutting and 3D printing tools within a single machine, and whom one can manage with any PC may give some hints of their future features. 

After a slow start some forty years ago artificial intelligence is now moving forward by leaps and bounds. 

"Deep learning" is one of the key technologies in AI research, which makes new desktop manufacturing tools not just numerically controlled but intelligent in a real sense. They will also be easier to use for technological novices. It is not difficult to see how the machines in the very near future can be programmed to make objects just using ordinary spoken language and how they can control their work with their efficient computer vision properties. 

 

CNC takes still some serious learning effort

After all the positive facts or praise written above a kind of reality check is in place. Today's large-scale manufacturing will have an excellent future even when some consumers turn prosumers. Many of us do not bother to make our things for ourselves instead of buying them. We just do not have skills, motivation or time. Mass produced or mass customized products will also be a more affordable solution in most product categories also in the future. 

Making of different prototypes and personally designed products, unique miniature models, rare spare parts and the like belong already to the world of small workshops and DIY hobbyists. New tools empower makers in those artisan tasks. 

Those professionals and amateurs also have the motivation to learn to program new desktop fabrication systems. Learning to use those machines takes still some serious time before artificial intelligence has made many big leaps forward. 

Without necessary technical and mathematical skills, it is still quite easy to produce low-quality items for the garbage can even with those smart tool management features. Other risks are also easy to see. Those machines are still quite complicated, and without learning their proper use, you even destroy their attached tools or in the worst case the whole machine.  There are also personal safety issues - and naturally one must also learn characteristics of materials handled in the desktop.  

 

Home factories will be odd birds also in the future

Political economist Adam Smith in his famous book 'The Wealth of Nations' wrote how the division of labor represents a quantitative increase in productivity and it is the dynamic engine of economic progress. This division of labor favors large specialized factories instead of home manufacturing also in the future. 

The value chains in engineering and production are more efficient than ever in the mass production industry. Large-scale automation and multifunctional numerical controlled tools lower costs in manufacturing. They and diminish labor part in the value creation but make those factories competitively stronger than ever. In best - or in the worst case, there will be only limited competition between factories and cottage industries also even if desktop manufacturing would come more mainstream phenomena. 

Factory of the future is more intelligent and networked, more efficient and more flexible than what we have seen so far. Large scale production and manufacturing of complex products also belong in the future to those factories. They have many cost and technology benefits, new approaches like Internet of things is just one of them. 

There are also some unyielding universal human needs that favor production environments where people do work together in the same physical space. We are social animals and like to solve new tasks together. Creative interaction is productive when we can coordinate our work face to face. This need and the many facets of social control are reasons, why telecommuting has not grown more popular than what it is today. The same may apply to new DIY culture. It is entirely possible that it will stay the domain of same hobbyists who already enjoy to do things themselves. 

Many technological advances favor "classical factories" and will assure their competitiveness also in the future. Mass production will probably never return to homes, but cottage industries, product developers and DIY hobbyist have a new world of possibilities where your skills and motivation is the decisive factor, not money or missing technology. It is already available for most of us - or coming to market sooner than you expect. 


Some examples of new desktop manufacturing tools and systems


Shaper Origin - a handheld CNC machine with a computer vision makes it easy to use. 


Carbide 3D Nomad 883 Pro - a ready-to-run CNC mill that takes up as much space as an inkjet printer.


Maslow  - a large CNC cutting machine under 500 euros for “printing” big useful things.


Wazer  - the first waterjet cutter for the desktop. Cut any material like steel, glass and rocks with digital precision using high-pressure water. 


Chipsetter One - assemble electronic components on individually printed circuit boards professionally on your desktop in a short time. 


Othermill Pro - the fast way to prototype high-precision printed circuit boards in-house. The machine is well suitable also as a CNC system for making small prototype parts.  


Mr Beam II - a desktop laser cutter and engraver. The cutter makes possible to cut architectural and hobby models like airplanes with very high precision from balsa, plywood, kraftplex or cardboard. 


FormBox - a desktop vacuum former that bakes molds, copies of ordinary objects or a copy of your 3D printed original in seconds and is powered by your vacuum cleaner. The device works well with thermoplastics. 


Eskesso - slow-cooking automation for the kitchen. “Sous vide cooking” makes you a chef without any special cooking skills and lets you manage it all with your smartphone. 


Robo C2 and Robo R2 - effortless 3D printers for rapid prototyping and personalized production. Print 3D piece from a mobile device with the Robo app. 


Makerarm - a robotic arm with a plentitude of tools and functions: 3D print, laser, carve, plot, assemble, pick and place things. The machine is a versatile personal fabrication system on the desktop. 


Carvey - easy to use tabletop 3D carving machine for various materials. The machine lowers the barrier to entry for CNC tool use.