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Design

How To Join The Manufacturer Hacking Revolution

A new exhibition at London's Design Museum explores how digital manufacturing might change the way we consume products.

by Sam Clements
30 July 2013, 6:00pm

FormLabs 3D printer: the first consumer-priced printer of its type. Image courtesy of Andy Ryan

There's a new industrial revolution taking place. Or, at least, there is according to the Design Museum in London's latest exhibition The Future Is Here. And it's being fueled by the DIY maker movement and digital manufacturing. An explosion in new technology has ignited what’s being called a "third industrial revolution" of manufacture hackers—where customer-customisation and self-production is shaking up how we design, distribute, and buy everything. 

Despite the somewhat niche maker movement having been around for quite a few years, a growing cocktail of easier to use design software and plummeting prices of production machines has made the process of design and manufacture a much more accessible affair. 

Over at the London Design Museum they've brought together some of the practitioners of this trend, exhibiting the machines that make it possible like 3D printers, CNC machines, and the Raspberry Pi—technology which is familar to some people but is being lined up to cause havoc for industrial manufacturing, if it ever gets adopted by the mainstream.

But while you're waiting for that, here's how you can get involved.

Explore the Open Source Community


How WikiHouse works: Designs, materials, and machine provide a ‘print out’ skeleton structure. Image by WikiHouse.

An open source ethos bubbles beneath the maker community due to the shareability of digital designs over the net—it encourages people to distribute and improve them for free, from a model car to a building, you can pretty much find the designs for anything somewhere online. 

The WikiHouse project is  good example and pulls from a community library of digital 3D models that are shared under the Creative Commons license, which gives everyone free-to-access structure designs that can also be edited to suit specific needs, essentially cutting out the need for a manufacturer, distributer, or builder.

“The idea you can scan something, send it across the world and have it produced by a 3D printer on the other side of the planet can do nothing but open up opportunities,” Alex Newson, the exhibition’s curator, told me. “I think manufacturers are still struggling to work out what that means and they’re a little bit scared about it but I think the smart ones are opening their products up—the music industry struggled to modernise and it stung them quite a bit.”

As well as torrent sites that link to a sea of digital designs, other specialist communities have popped up online such as Ikea Hackers—a site which shares ideas and instructions to repurpose unwanted products from Ikea—and AtFAB, which currently gives the designs of its furniture away for free for you to make yourself. 

Adopt the Tools of a Next Generation Industrialist


3D printer

Not many of these customizable products would be possible without the lurching semi-autonomous machinery and CAD software that turns those lightbulb ideas into real life objects. And like all technology, it’s constantly getting smaller, cheaper, and easier to use.

The design process behind the machines is becoming increasingly consumer-friendly too, with smartphone apps like Autodesk 123D suite that lets you render a 3D design just by taking photos of an object or person. A step up is TinkerCAD, which is a free piece of computer software that is kind of like designing with Lego but on the computer.

Michael Warren, a designer who created the cheap and portable Grow CNC machine, notes how this accessibility raises awareness of the DIY maker culture. "Something has changed which has allowed people to get hold of technology a lot cheaper, and the interest in it is now causing it to snowball. Software that controls these machines that used to cost thousands—like $30k a license—is now free. The barriers are coming crashing down and the early adopters in that industry are the makers and the craftsman.”

There’s now a wide choice of affordable 3D printers and prices for high quality machines are expected to plummet next year due to patents expiring. Even if you don’t own a CNC or 3D printer yourself, it’s getting more likely that a local business or institution will, granting you easy access to them.

But the factory is far from dead: “If you want to make 100,000 toothbrushes," notes Warren "you’re going to mass produce them because that’s the easy way to it and it makes sense. But, there are things that should be digitally fabricated—if you do that, then make use of the specificity of that manufacturing process, make sure that it’s small batch and it’s customized.”

Hack Your Product Beyond Recognition


A hacked Makies doll that responds to sound. Photo by Sara Long

Customization is a key factor when it comes to consumer-led design. You can see it in the exhibition with products like the Makies dolls: 3D printed 10 inch tall dolls that are completely customisable from the point of manufacture, via MakieLab’s Create Your Makie website and app. You can also hack the doll after purchase by installing a range of electronic components yourself.

The product has spawned a whole Makies doll community of modders that evolve their dolls with LEDs, RFIDs, and voice chips, making the dolls a canvas for people, especially kids, to explore and augment their programming and electronics skills. 

“Look at the craft kits on sale for kids in toy stores—making and crafting in toy land has always been huge." says Alice Taylor, MakieLab founder and CEO. "But the maker-crafter movement is bigger than that and seeing as the West Coast MakerFaire has gone from 0 to 120K attendees in a mere 6 years, it's a movement of huge importance. There's a saying on the West Coast: what the alpha nerds do now, the mainstream does 10 years later. Assuming the economy stays shaky—and it will—and the climate continues to change—and it will—then I think the M-C culture can be mainstream in the next decade.”


3D model cut by a CNC machine. Image by CNCMYMODEL

The question remains whether the everyday consumer actually wants to be a designer. Do people have the energy and time to customize their own products? Maybe. Technology has certainly democratized the other creative industries—music, film, visual arts—so why not design?

The maker industry is also a much more eco-friendly manufacturing process that tends to avoid the labour of an often exploited third world workforce—an ethos, along with the technology, which is looking to be taught to the next generation of kids. So however hands on you want to get, prepare yourself for a future with more creative and independent ways to access and make the things that you want, where one size will definitely not fit all.

@sambobclements