Factory - everywhere

from Thomas Wagner | 9/5/2014

One: The Wishing Table!

Imagine a place at a set table, a table offering all manner of riches. Everyone’s dream? Truly a fairytale, but there are many obstacles to its realization. Not just of a physical, social and political nature, as there are the logistical hindrances. No less a person than Mad Ludwig II of Bavaria fulfilled that old human dream, or rather had it mechanized for him. At Schloss Herrenchiemsee, the incomplete “Versailles of Bavaria”, inspired by the Brother Grimm’s tale of “The Wishing Table, The Gold Ass and the Cudgel in the Sack” there’s a device that enables you to have the set table appear as if ghosted in by goblins – and disappear again to the floor below after the guzzling and gobbling. Typically 19th century, you might say. But at least it worked to the extent possible back then: Using an iron structure, castors and weights, the floor moved up and down, and on it the laid table at which the monarch could then take his meals without a waiter being needed. The meals were of course cooked as per normal.

Two: wishing machines

Today, the fairytale’s promise is being powerful renewed – by 3D printers that can not only “print” – and that includes meals.

"What goes by the snazzy word of “digital fabrication” today was for many years left to the imagination of techy sci-fi authors."

With the invention and rapid, triumphant dissemination of the digital computer, not only were fantasies of distant futures kindled, but the probability rose that new, decentralized and holistic modes of production might prove physically possible. Wishes accelerated along with the new technological possibilities. While in the case of the noble Bavarian nutter they were still trammeled to a mechanical wish machine, corresponding fantasies at the beginning of the 21st century are enclosed in a black box that is supposed to enable you to whisk up or produce any number of things you might need, quite at will. For example, the idea was vividly illustrated by the “replicator” in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series. What counted was that the wish did not remain in the realm of fiction. It infected the minds of academics, found a niche in the research labs, where the scientists started exploring whether and how it might be possible to arrange materials, indeed even individual atoms or molecules, such that any structure you wanted could be compiled from them.

Three: the next digital revolution

We are not exaggerating when we say that this is the beginning of a new digital revolution. The all-encompassing digitalization of controls and communication has now been successfully completed. What we are currently witnessing is their application – think integration and implementation in different industries and products, from smart homes to smartphones and from linking different transport systems to self-controlled automobiles. Next in line: the digitalization of production. A highly complex and ambitious undertaking no doubt. For when people talk about “digital fabrication”, they not only mean the programming of virtual spaces, but the programming of our physical world. Or, as Neil Gershenfeld has put it: “Digital fabrication will allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them.”

“Is having 3D printers at home realistic? And what design potential do they offer?”

Over the last two years there has been a veritable 3D printing euphoria, such that one could be forgiven for believing soon every household will have one and will become designers and manufacturers. Karl Marx’s dream that the people could own the means of production could then become a reality. But what’s the real state of play as regards 3D printing? And what potential does it have for design?

Essentially 3D printers are not a real innovation, as there have been industrial 3D printers since the early 1990s. That said, in 2005 the “RepRap” 3D printer hit the market, making it possible to have the technology at home, too. For “RepRap” was able to reproduce itself, the construction plans were made available to the Internet community, meaning quite normal consumers could suddenly needed only a few things to build their own 3D printer and could modify it into the bargain.

Four: turning data into things and things into data

Even if much of what appears feasible on the basis of current digital technology or is being promised by its ambassadors is not going to become a reality just overnight, we are nonetheless in the midst of a process that has some serious consequences and is destined to have much wider implications than when digitalization and the media revolutionized control systems and communication. Even if we are still catching ourselves being amazed at the speed in which familiar things are disappearing and tried-and-tested structures are changing, we are nonetheless getting accustomed to the blessings and horrors of the digital age and its laws. Including the permanent revolutions and acceleration effects it causes. It’s not so long ago that the PC, or personal computer, transformed our working and everyday habits. Now we are permanently connected to the media via smartphone or tablet.

“Essentially, it’s all about transforming data into things and things into data.“

Since the 1980s computer-assisted fabrication tools have not only been able to “take away” material, but they can construct things, too. Today we can choose among a plethora of “3D printing” processes. Not only do these enable us to generate models of items before they are produced in large volumes, but we can make full objects with complex structures too – including cell structures. The aim here is to even “print” functioning organs someday. At the heart of this endeavor is the wish to be able to fabricate almost everything in a decentralized manner using data-controlled machines. In other words, turning data into things and things into data. The ultimate goal is the production of complete objects, not just parts that can then be assembled into them. A fascinating thought indeed. And even if we bear in mind that those different processes are still in their infancy, many things can already be made using the new technology. You don’t have to be adventurous or a dreamer to understand that such a mode of production, if it were available on a broad scale, would revolutionize everything in the way industries are organized and challenge every traditional business model. Quite regardless of the fact that the holistic notion of creating complete objects will conflate such concepts as production and creation, paving the way for a completely radical understanding of production.

Five: personal fabrication

Sure, in light of the above it is essential that we draw a distinction between decentralized computer-assisted machines that merely produce precision parts for industrial purposes and simple 3D printers for home-improving purposes, which tend to be used solely for printing out decorative knick-knacks. That said, things are developing at ultra-rapid speed. In the case of spare parts, or even just simple objects or machines, 3D printers are destined to supersede conventional solutions, for the simple reason that they can be accessed the world over from your own home or so-called “fab labs” (“fabrication labs” or “fabulous labs”).

In the long term, then, in digital fabrication the distinction between hobby and professional use will be blurred, as production will be personalized and adapted to suit the needs of the user. Indeed, if different “printing” processes can enable the production of complex parts or objects wherever a capable printer is at hand, in digital printing the effect will be such that many DIY enthusiasts will democratize production and access to the selfsame machines. The crux of the matter, however, is that every object made this way is based on a specific design construction plan, which, once evolved, can be transmitted electronically and “on demand” to every production site, ideally to every household, a move that would necessarily omit almost all production sites and transport capacities required today.

Six: devaluation of things and upvaluation of concepts?

And don’t forget: In analogy to what happened after the invention of letterpress printing and other reproduction methods, we can expect that digital production will cause the devaluation of things themselves (including factories and production processes) and the upvaluation of the concepts from which they arise.

“Access to the means of production will not per se spell emancipation from ‘industry’ and a change in the value-added chain.”

Regardless of whether you yourself program the datasets, they are open source, or need to be purchased. What is more, ever shorter lifecycles of products in many industries perfectly suit this new mode of production. And with products morphing into datasets that can be electronically dispatched, the question of data protection pops up – just like in the music industry. Meaning we need to consider issues such as copyright and the remuneration of authors. Which brings us to the question of the accessibility of such “tools”. A topic that is here to stay; after all (we need think only of developments in print and online media) enabling access to production tools will not necessarily yield emancipation from “the industry” and a change in the value-added chain.

Seven: revaluation of values

Regardless of how things will turn out in the future advancement of “digital fabrication”, one thing is certain, namely that the industrial capitalism of the late modern age is continuing to change into a cultural capitalism shaped by concepts and ideas. Undoubtedly we are in the midst of experiencing yet another loop in the digital revolution, which will revolutionize the way we work and live, prompting a comprehensive revaluation of all those values that we still regarded as solid and irreversible only yesterday. What we can say for sure: Whether the digital Wishing Table will be a possible option and what the repercussions of on-call networked and decentralized production will be are no longer a question of the imagination, but a decision made in the labs of the IT sector.

Reason enough to start getting a handle on things. So get yourself a dictionary that lists all the relevant terms and tools and start browsing a series of articles on role models, hands-on applications and possible developments.
The "Hype Cycle" by the technology analysts and consulting firm Gartner illustrates what technologies are currently located on the peak of expectations. Often is then clear that the obstacles to the development or implementation are higher than thought. But after the „Trough of disillusionment" was passed and the applicability of the technology grows, so do the expectations again. Infographics © Gartner
The "Hype Cycle" by the technology analysts and consulting firm Gartner illustrates what technologies are currently located on the peak of expectations. Often is then clear that the obstacles to the development or implementation are higher than thought. But after the „Trough of disillusionment" was passed and the applicability of the technology grows, so do the expectations again. Infographics © Gartner