October 11, 2012 AT 5:40 pm

How to Make Almost Anything

Adafruit 580

How to Make Almost Anything @ Foreign Affairs via Nick.

A new digital revolution is coming, this time in fabrication. It draws on the same insights that led to the earlier digitizations of communication and computation, but now what is being programmed is the physical world rather than the virtual one. Digital fabrication will allow individuals to design and produce tangible objects on demand, wherever and whenever they need them. Widespread access to these technologies will challenge traditional models of business, aid, and education.

The roots of the revolution date back to 1952, when researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wired an early digital computer to a milling machine, creating the first numerically controlled machine tool. By using a computer program instead of a machinist to turn the screws that moved the metal stock, the researchers were able to produce aircraft components with shapes that were more complex than could be made by hand. From that first revolving end mill, all sorts of cutting tools have been mounted on computer-controlled platforms, including jets of water carrying abrasives that can cut through hard materials, lasers that can quickly carve fine features, and slender electrically charged wires that can make long thin cuts. 

Today, numerically controlled machines touch almost every commercial product, whether directly (producing everything from laptop cases to jet engines) or indirectly (producing the tools that mold and stamp mass-produced goods). And yet all these modern descendants of the first numerically controlled machine tool share its original limitation: they can cut, but they cannot reach internal structures. This means, for example, that the axle of a wheel must be manufactured separately from the bearing it passes through. 

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1 Comment

  1. Wow. Foreign Affairs. Good journal (I used to subscribe a life time ago), but not the kind of article I’d expect to see from them … but good surprise, and makes more sense than it seems.

    I used to be quite interested in international development (ergo the Foreign Affairs subscription), and it was the first field I started working in after university. I had to give it up when I met my wife, but what got me into OSHW as an idea (beyond just enjoying making/designing stuff) was the possibility it has to offer people financial independence and create economic opportunities in their respective communities. You know, "teach a man (or woman!) to fish", yada yada.

    I still feel as much as ever that there’s a real potential for the maker movement to have a meaningful and positive effect on some of the most vulnerable segments of society. Financial independence through low cost manufacturing/design is precisely what some of the most marginalized people need because they so seldom have access to traditional jobs or educational opportunities.

    Small scale manufacturing and low cost prototyping might seem like a weird match for a journal like Foreign Affairs, but the idealist and pragmatist in me thinks this is exactly the combination we need, and they actually align nicely.

    How about teaching girls to solder in societies where they aren’t always valued as the essential half of the planet that they are? You hardly need to be literate to understand a schematic, or to understand the directions on a diode, etc., and very basic electronics is an accessible skill for anyone with decent vision and sufficient motivation.

    It’s not a cure-all solution, but the Maker movement has the potential to make a difference in more than a few lives … and it’s an interesting challenge to ask ourselves as professional ‘makers’ or as hobbyists how we can help make that knowledge transfer happen.

    Sorry … not linked /directly/ to the article, but since it’s something I was thinking about before seeing this article, the Foreign Affairs thing seemed like a bit of a funny coincidence.

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