1. What is it about
You browse the site looking for the product you are interested in. You read some of the reviews to see what other people think of it. You check all the images, 3D models of the product and its interactive features. Finally you decide that it’s worth the money and you go ahead and pay for it. Somewhere else, in the middle of the country, a machine comes to life. It has received a command from an online retailer to make a product. The machine is given the Universal Standard Identification Number of the product. It contacts a product database and downloads the latest design data for your selected product. This digital data contains all the information necessary to manufacture the product. Having finished downloading the data, it starts the fabrication process using appropriate material. After a while, the fabrication of different components of the product is completed. These parts are assembled together with an assembly robot. The product is then sent via conveyors for packaging and is finally shipped to you.
This is the future of rapid product manufacturing and delivery. Today, such technology is mainly used by engineers for rapid prototyping. As the machines become more sophisticated, as the internet gets more mature and as global logistics becomes ever more efficient, there comes a time that products are made one at a time based on order; manufacture-on-demand. Perhaps there will always be a need to mass manufacture common products for efficiency, but as the Long Tail has shown us, there is a lot of scope in making low-volume products with infinite diversity for every taste.
How to order a Dream Chair:
1. Designer uses CAD and other rapid prototyping tools to make the chair.
2. You as the customer visit a website to order a chair. Suppose Amazon can handle this and here is what you see (fictional). You find the chair, though it has only one problem. It doesn’t have armrests.
3. You download the chair and open the design in the appropriate tool. You add two armrests to the design.
4. Once you are happy, you export the product and upload it back to Amazon. Amazon checks the design for consistency, completeness and safety.
5. Amazon sends off your spec and the original design to the direct digital manufacturer and the product is produced and finally shipped to you.
2. Where is the fun
- Anyone can design a product, even at home, and then upload it to the net. You can get royalties for every product you sell, just like books, even if you sell only ten of them.
- You can design a product for yourself, and only pay for a typical item of that complexity. You won’t experience any costly product development cycles with lots of bread boarding and prototyping.
- The sheer number of possible products and their manufacturing leads to incredible amount of innovation, unprecedented in history.
- Ultra-large direct-digital-manufacturing bases can be placed around a country where all orders are collected, products fabricated, assembled and shipped. This eliminates the need to ship all parts from various companies to regions with cheap labour for assembly and send them back again to end customers. As parts travel less, they should cost less which in turn reduces the cost of making the products or even the fabricators and so on the cycle goes.
- You can produce your product the same way as you may publish a book with print-on-demand technology. You write the book (or design the product) and upload the file to a website. You own the copyright and all rights. The website sends the order to the printer (or to direct digital manufacturer), the product is made and is then directly shipped to any customer who purchases it.
- A direct-digital-manufacturing website can have a large number of products in its library and much like today’s leading e-commerce sites, it will have customer rating and feedback. Since everyone can be creative, a large number of would-be product designers will join in and start to produce products for just about every niche.
- Professional designers can use the system to produce better designs while prototyping complex products. For a fixed cost they can get their hands on a working prototype very cheaply and early in the development. Others can use evolutionary approaches to improve the design by ordering a population of prototypes and measuring their performance against each other to ultimately eliminate the worst performing ideas by natural selection.
- Eventually, only a handful of companies will be involved in the business of direct-digital-manufacturing. The vast majority of the effort will go towards ever more elaborate product design.
- Each product will become like software today. Software is always subject to getting updated and patched. A product design is also subject to incremental improvement. To get the latest version of your fancy grater, you just have to order another product with the latest digital blue print available on the database. Since the process is extremely efficient and updates are easier to implement and distribute, the turnaround for this will be fast. Hence, each product will have many updates throughout its life cycle.
- You can customise the product before you buy it, in ways that are not possible today. Since you are customising the product before it is manufactured, you can in effect change many aspects of the design itself. Computers can rationalise your changes and make sure they conform to the overall design. An example will help. Suppose you want to have a tripod that has two notched to guide the placement of a camera. You want to place your camera in such a way that the battery compartment will be accessible when it is attached to the tripod. You can modify the position of the notch yourself before you order the tripod. You can also extend the legs to make it taller. Perhaps you want to have a smooth finish and of course in black. In time, even more options can be integrated and ultimately you just want to guide the computer in designing your preferred product.
- The same business model already exists in a virtual world such as Second Life where you create products such as cloth for avatars. When customers order your cloth, a copy is created and sent to them. In this world, all you need to focus on is the design. The system will take care of everything. It maintains a virtual shop for displaying cloths, ships a copy of the purchased product to the customer’s inventory, charges the customer and deposits the money into your account. It seems that the business model in the real world is going towards this direction as well, with large implications.
3. What are its Applications
Just about any industry can be affected by this. The vast majority of the effort these days is spent on doing something about products, be it designing, manufacturing, selling, shipping, repairing and so on. Even if it was not possible initially to fabricate a complex product, certain parts of it can be fabricated.
Robotics in particular can benefit greatly from this field. Although there has been considerable progress in the design of autonomous robots, the progress has been generally slow. This is due to slow progress in developing mechanical products as opposed to the incredible progress we have witnessed in electronics and software industry. Robotics requires rapid prototyping and experimentation. A physical robot needs to interact with the real world which requires sophisticated sensors and actuators. Evolutionary approaches can be used to iterate through the design of the robot.
Interestingly, direct-digital-manufacturing may have the greatest impact on robotics, which in turn may have a large impact on improving the fabrication and assembly process. Hence, there is a very strong positive feedback cycle between these two fields.
4. How developed is it
Direct digital manufacturing is also known under many other terms each with different emphasis on different parts of the manufacturing process. Molecular Manufacturing represents a machine that assembles molecules and is primarily involved in the nano scale. Solid freeform fabrication, digital fabricator, and desktop manufacturing are some other terms used to describe the process of fabricating a product based on a digital design. You can already use 3D printers to convert a digital CAD design to a 3D product made out of plastic. The device is used in many mechanical and robotics labs around the world as well as companies who need to make low-volume moulds of plastic and need to design and assemble their target product incrementally.
These incredible examples of artistic digital fabrications just show the beginning of what it would be a world phenomenon in the future.
A novel method that shows the power of this technology is combining 3D motion capture technology with rapid prototyping. The result is the illusion shows in this video that you can literally sketch furniture in a given room and get them made by the fabricator. Pretty neat.
There are also many uses in architecture so you can get a feel for your 3D designed buildings.
5. How can it be improved
There are tremendous challenges ahead before the vision of the ultra-product-fabricator can be realized. The biggest challenge is to get the fabricator to produce a product with different material and moving parts. Currently 3D shapes are produced in 3D printers and motors and electrical parts are assembled later on to complete the product design. Ultimately the assembly should be automated as well. Either the assembly takes place inside the fabricator or the fabricate parts are passed to assembly robots via conveyer belts for produce the final product. This way, the whole system can be treated as a direct digital manufacturing device.
6. What does it lead to
In the future we will have access to an unprecedented amount of products designed by professional, hobbyists and everyone in between. Products will be rated by users and the best will become popular. Customisation of products can be sent online for everyone else’s review which means end-users will be part of the design team as well. Today we simulate this process with agile software development practices usually only used in software industry. In the future, the distinction between hardware and software industry will start to fade as each physical product will have a virtual digital design with a one-to-one relationship.
The beauty of manufacture-on-demand (similar to print-on-demand) is that it can be incredibly efficient on resources used. This technology is in particular in line with our need to protect the environment and preserve resources. Rather than mass manufacturing products that may not get used, products are created based on demand and are only mass-produced when it is efficient to do so.