The Future of Manufacturing
in Rapid Prototyping Journal, Volume 1, Number 1, 1995
Adapted from keynote address to
13th International Congress on Applications of Lasers and Electro-Optics (ICALEO 94)
Laser Institute of America, Orlando, Florida, October 1994
by Marshall Burns
Ever since I was a young boy, Ive been interested in linguistics. Ive always been fascinated by the roots and origins of words. The focus of my professional life right now has a name with a very interesting origin. The word manufacturing comes from two Latin words, manus, meaning hand, and faceo, meaning to make. So, literally, to manufacture means to make by hand, something of a foreign notion in our modern manufacturing industries. Originally, what we now call a factory, a place where the products of commerce are generated, was called a manufactory. This was a place where skilled craftsmen labored with love and dedication to produce tools, weapons, and other artifacts.
Manufacturing has, in my opinion, been in something of a depression for the last 230 years. This may seem like a strange statement, since in that period manufacturing has grown immeasurably both in terms of the people involved in it and in its productivity. It was about 230 years ago that James Watt started the Industrial Revolution with the invention of the steam engine, the first of a family of modern technologies that generate artificial power, which now includes electricity and atomic fission. Rather quickly after that time, manufacturing literally slipped out of the hands of artisans and craftspeople, and was turned over to great assemblies of spinning wheels, churning pistons, and undulating electrons. In the Industrial Revolution, the manufactory became just the factory, a place just for making things, with as little involvement of human hands as possible.
The Industrial Revolution caused an explosion of wealth and individual power that has by now taken us to the Moon, irrigated our deserts, and permeated the atmosphere with electromagnetic signals that carry more information in one second than were contained in all the scrolls of the Library of Alexandria. But the cost of all this wealth and development has been the very soul of manufacturing, because we have taken it out of human hands. The human race is now more affluent than at any time in the dreams of kings throughout history, but we are lost, aimless, dispirited, because we dont know anymore why we are here.
The movie, Terminator, was a very interesting sociological expression of one of the greatest fears of modern humankind. This is the fear that our wonderful machines, the brilliant progeny of our human minds, are becoming somehow more important than us, and that we, their creators, are becoming irrelevant.
Fortunately, there is a movement afoot today which is putting the manus back in manufacturing, which is returning to the products of industry the importance of the human mind and hand, and that will make todays factory obsolete and replace it once again with the manufactory of skilled craftspeople and artisans. This movement is called automated fabrication. It is today an $8 billion industry, but its impact has not nearly begun to be felt.
Autofab is performed by the most modern of machines. A fabricator generates 3-dimensional, solid objects under computer control. Fabricators come in three varieties, subtractive, additive, and formative, depending on whether the process works by removing material from a solid block, by building up the object one particle at a time, or by pressing on opposing sides of a mass to contort it into the desired shape. There are five different fields of application for these amazing machines: low-volume manufacturing production, industrial prototypes, molds and dies for replication processes, imaging of 3-D scientific data, and computerized sculpture. One result for companies that have been using fabricators has been enormous savings in the cost and time to bring products to market. But other results, just as important, have included improved quality, improved morale, and the ability to make new products that were simply not possible to make a few short years ago.
After 45 years of development on subtractive fabricators, and close to 10 on additive, autofab still has a long way to go to meet its potential. Across the coming turn of the century, we can expect to see improvements in the accuracy and resolution of the processes. We can expect to see faster machines capable of building larger objects. We will see a much broader variety of materials available for each process. The types of machines available will range from room-filling superfabricators, down to desk-top personal fabricators. And most importantly, the interface to the fabricator user, 3-D CAD systems, will become easier to use. These improvements will come about through ongoing work in the three intimately related fields: process, materials, and control.
Let me dwell for a moment on the issue of the user interface, because this is how the fabricator will return the human hand to manufacturing. Future fabricators will abandon the archaic interface devices of the 2-dimensional display screen, the keyboard, and the mouse. In their places, the fabricator user will find a 3-D display and tactile and voice input. This combination will exhibit a 3-dimensional image on the users desktop and will allow the user to define and modify this image with fingertip gestures and voice instructions. In other words, the engineer, designer, or artist will effectively sculpt the desired object in thin air on the desktop in front of him or her. This goal is akin to that of research in virtual reality, except that we are not talking here about immersing ourselves in the created environment. We only want to create a 3-D image space in a well-defined box of space in front of us, and immerse only our hands in it.
The net effect of coming improvements in autofab technologies will be an explosion in human productivity on a scale that hasnt been seen since the dawn of the modern era. But more important than cold productivity is the return of the soul of manufacturing, the return of the manus in manufacturing. The ability to generate a solid object of arbitrary shape by describing it in a CAD system allows individual artisans and craftspeople to return to their proper, dominant position in manufacturing that they lost 230 years ago. The advent of sophisticated 3-D display and input devices will allow tomorrows engineers and designers to sculpt their designs in thin air on their desks in front of them. And that is why I say that we are returning to a style of manufacturing where the human hands play their original, central role.
Although I am speaking of a return of the importance of the human hand in manufacturing, this modern style will have little else in common with preindustrial manufacturing. Everything else will be drastically different. Firstly, sculpting an object in the desktop 3-D image device, the new manufacturer will have the freedom to design absolutely any shape imaginable, and maybe some that seem quite unimaginable. Secondly, he or she will be able to specify almost any known material, and any intricate combination or composite of various materials, for the object. Thirdly, when another copy is wanted, either identical to the first design or with minor or major changes, it will be generated with very little additional effort.
But the most obvious difference between modern, autofab-based manufacturing and preindustrial manufacturing is that the human hands are not directly actuating the tools that physically manipulate the materials. That is all handled automatically. What the hands manipulate in autofab-based manufacturing are the design tools. And that makes perfect sense because the most important characteristic of the human hand is not that it can hold a tool, as magnificent as that capability is. The most wonderful characteristic of the human hand is that its motion is an expression of the human mind. Automated fabrication, when used in conjunction with desktop 3-D displays and tactile input devices will allow people to design their hearts content with their own hands, and see their designs fabricated in solid material automatically before their very eyes.
This is the future of manufacturing, a future that takes us back to the Latin roots of the very word itself, and offers a bright future to people of skill and creativity who are willing to learn how to exploit these new tools productively.