Over the past 20 or so years, the open source community has continually grown and evolved, with the majority of developments occurring in the software world. Recent developments, however, are allowing the open source community to expand into the physical realm and are opening up new opportunities for everyone. I call this the digital manufacturing trend, as design information is shared digitally so that the process of manufacturing can be replicated in a distributed fashion. I want to discuss a few of the more powerful developments in this area as well as the events that are driving this new evolution.
3D Printing as a Catalyst for Innovation
Most people that have been following the world of open source have at least heard of the explosion in hobbyist 3d printing as embodied through projects like the MakerBot, and RepRap. These projects range from proprietary designs to open source, but at the core, they all share one technology: fused deposition modeling (FDM). This technology was originally patented by S. Scott Crump in 1989 shortly before he founded the company Stratasys. This patent expired in 2009, the same year that MakerBot got its start, and since this expiration we have witnessed an incredible amount of 3d printers being developed and released (more on this at a later date).
Human beings love to dream big, and our imaginations have gone wild now that we have greater access to this wonderful technology. In my opinion, much of the hype has been at least a little over-exaggerated, but there is no doubt that greater access to 3d printing will empower humanity to do more. This technology is only one among many that are involved in the process of prototyping and manufacturing, but it seems to be the one with the lowest barrier to entry and the greatest number of practical applications. Because of this, 3d printing is driving the interest of the mainstream and is creating open design communities that are disseminating vast amounts of information. As this technology becomes less expensive, and more capable of complex production, I only see this trend continuing.
The Three Paths of Digital Manufacturing
In my own explorations, I have seen three distinct trends in the development of open source manufacturing. The first is distributed manufacturing, in which a large number of people play part in the development of a product from around the world. The second is artisan manufacturing, where a small group, typically experts in their field, develop a product using open designs and share it for dissemination. The final model is a blend of the first two, in which the original designs are developed by a group of experts and then disseminated to the world for adaptation and testing.
I think the most profound development in the distributed manufacturing trend has been the creation of makerspaces around the world. From libraries. to schools, to small community organizations, many different groups of people are seeing the benefits of the makerspace model and are not only adapting it to existing organizations but are also creating new organizations entirely for the purpose of providing a makerspace. We are even seeing these developments in areas like Africa which, up to this point, have been severely neglected in the informational renaissance.
The next major development in the distributed manufacturing trend has been the Thingiverse. Here, people share the designs for their own 3d printed creations for others to download and try themselves. This community provides an organic framework whose purpose is to spread useful ideas, and the objects range from obscure artwork to ultra-practical household items. It demonstrates many of the typical traits of an open source community in that it has a wide range of people from around the world contributing, reporting problems, testing, and providing feedback on a wealth of designs.
The area of open source artisan manufacturing has been much less prevalent so far. I think the primary reason for this is because open source projects tend not to be very profitable and thrive the best when there is a large distributed group of people contributing. However, there still have been some recent examples of this and I will discuss them briefly.
The first is the Lasersaur which is an open source laser cutter. I have recently had the pleasure of getting access to and training on a laser cutter, and I have realized firsthand how vast the applications of these devices are. The price of proprietary designs typically puts them well out of reach of most hobbiests and amateur designers, so a lower-cost, open source laser cutter could be immensely helpful. The cost of materials for the Lasersaur is around $7,000, making it about a quarter of the price of a comparable proprietary model. This machinery is relatively complicated as well, making maintenance challenging, and costly if purchased from an outside company. The people behind the Lasersaur have thoroughly document the construction and troubleshooting process meaning that if you can learn to build it, you can learn to fix it. This can be very helpful to smaller organizations looking to acquire this technology.
Similarly, the LoBo CNC is a desktop computer controlled routing machine that is also open source. Both of these devices are part of a trend that I think is likely to remain relatively small as artisan manufacturing typically benefits the most from moving towards a blended structure which I will discuss in the next section.
In between distributed and artisan manufacturing you find a wealth of project structures that offer varying levels of combinations of the two. I think this design process is most effective at producing specific tools that are needed to fill very specific needs. Usually, these projects start with a small group of dedicated members that are experts in their particular areas who design tools with a specific goal in mind. Then, once the first iterations are completed, the designs are shared with a distributed community in order to get feedback, extensive testing, problem reporting, and improvements.
One of the best examples of this process is Open Source Ecology. Currently, this project is working on the Global Village Construction Set in order to build and test 50 different industrial machines with the goal of providing designs for the equipment it takes to build a small civilization. This equipment includes a tractor, 3d printer, laser cutter, car, compressed earth block press, and many other practical pieces of equipment with multiple iterations of some of them that have already been released. Most recently, construction has begun on the Microhouse, led by a good friend of mine, Chris Reinhart, which uses the equipment designed by OSE to produce a home.
The next major project in this area of manufacturing is the WikiHouse. WikiHouse is an open source project, shared under the creative commons license and is a house frame design whose parts can be cut entirely from sheets of plywood using a CNC router. The only tool needed is a hammer (that can also be cut from plywood) and can be erected by 3 people in about a day. The materials for a house of about 600 square feet can cost as low as $3,000 – $5,000 making houses built using this method extremely affordable. The design process for this house is still in its early stages, but progress is steady and the future is bright.
Closely related to the wikihouse project is the OpenDesk project which provides the designs for a variety of desks and seats. The designs are simple and the project is relatively small, but I think this idea could be brought to a wide variety of household goods and practical items. This project has a much lower barrier to entry and virtually everyone uses desks and chairs making it much easier to find people that can contribute to the designs.
The Future of Distributed Manufacturing
I think these last three projects demonstrate the power that bringing experts together with a distributed community of contributors can have on producing tools that help humanity. While a completely distributed structure, such as the Thingiverse, can have a mainstream applicability, the development of useful items is sporadic and the quality is not always adequate to meet the needs of the item. Bringing in experts to design tools in their field that are then tested by people all over the world is an incredibly powerful method for producing immensely helpful tools.
Product testing is often a lengthy and expensive process for businesses that are trying to develop new products. A blended open source design has the potential to optimize this process in both cost and time. In addition, providing the design information to everyone that is involved allows anyone to adapt these tools to suit their specific needs. A business can’t always make this kind of niche adjustment to proprietary products as specific adaptations for a small group of people often do not make sense from the viewpoint of profitability. For example, a person living in the desert will need a different type of house than a person living in a cold environment. The open source nature of the WikiHouse would allow each person to make specific adaptations to for their own locale and share those adaptations with others in a similar situation.
This kind of process is nearly impossible to replicate in a business model but can provide a wealth of solutions if utilized properly in an online, open source community. The design process using these methods is still in its infancy, but so far the successes of these projects have been very substantial, and I believe that this is an area that will only continue to expand. In the coming decade, manufacturing is likely to experience a struggle similar to the challenges faced by the digital media industry over the last decade. We are at the precipice of a transformation in how we make products and the open source design process will help revolutionize the world of manufacturing.Image Credits: Creative Tools, Nortd Labs, Open Source Ecology, WikiHouse