By Alan Gershenfeld, Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld and Neil Gershenfeld
Over the past 50 years, two digital revolutions — in communication and computation — have created unprecedented wealth and transformed how we live, learn, work and play. We are now on the cusp of third digital revolution — in fabrication — that will be equally transformative of markets and society.
A half-century ago it wasn’t obvious that computation capability would progress from fitting in buildings to fitting in rooms to fitting on desks to fitting in pockets and finally to embedding in infrastructure.
The third digital revolution is on a similar trajectory, progressing from room-filling machines to desktop personal fabrication to ubiquitous programmable materials. We are entering a phase analogous to the shift from minicomputers to personal computers — a point at which people who didn’t see the change coming were left in the dust.
So how can investors, entrepreneurs, policy makers, educators and social entrepreneurs avoid being in the dust this time? Here are four observations:
It’s not just 3-D printing
Frosti Gíslason/Saethor Vido
When most people hear “digital fabrication,” they think 3-D printing. While 3-D printers are part of a fab lab, the hype around this additive manufacturing technology misses the wide range of digital fabrication technologies in the short term as well as the longer-term impact of discrete “digital” materials.
With a 3-D printer, you can build a model of a drone, and maybe some of its parts; in a fab lab you can build the whole drone, fabricating both form and function. This is because a fab lab has a mix of digital fabrication equipment that is additive, such as a 3-D printer, and subtractive, such as a laser cutter or a 3-D milling machine, as well equipment to embed programmable computer chips. This equipment is comparable to what isused in rapid prototyping facilities in industry, only it is located in schools, libraries, universities, museums and other community settings.
Throughout the world, people are making everything from food , furniture and crafts to computers , houses and cars across a global network of more than 1,000 community fab labs . The designs are sourced globally, while the fabrication is done locally. And this is the tip of a much bigger story leading from fab labs today, to fab labs being able to make fab labs in the near future, up to a Star Trek–style replicator that can make (almost) anything, including itself. It will do this by digitizing not just the designs of things but also the construction of the materials that they’re made of.
For investors interested in pioneering the third digital revolution, it is essential to understand the full range of digital fabrication capabilities in the short run and the technology road map in the long run.
Value will accrue to organizations that can create better, faster, cheaper additive and subtractive hardware as well as more intuitive CAD (computer-aided-design) and CAM (computer-aided-manufacturing) software and environmentally-friendly, reusable and cost-effective raw materials. Value will also be created by developers of platforms and tools that are interoperable and that can be locally adapted and extended — so they can propagate across the global fab network.
Companies making digital fabrication machines include those that initially sold to industry and are now expanding to smaller workgroups and individuals as well as newer entrants that have always targeted the personal market. Among makers of 3-D printers, the first category includes Stratasys /zigman2/quotes/207628786/composite SSYS -0.73% and 3D Systems /zigman2/quotes/204115574/composite DDD +1.23% , while the second includes Formlabs and Sindoh /zigman2/quotes/203453744/delayed KR:029530 +0.22% . Manufacturers of subtractive milling machines include ShopBot and Roland DG /zigman2/quotes/210175455/delayed JP:6789 +1.35% as well as Shaper Tools and Bantam Tools. Among those making laser cutters, one of the most popular tools in a fab lab, are Epilog Laser and Universal Laser Systems in the first camp, and Full Spectrum and Glowforge in the latter camp. CAD and CAM companies range from the more established DS/SolidWorks and Autodesk /zigman2/quotes/209828392/composite ADSK +1.18% to smaller cloud offerings such as Onshape and open-source projects such as FreeCAD.
Today’s killer app is the process
While fab labs provide rapid prototyping capabilities for individuals, small and even big businesses, one of the most interesting business models doesn’t involve selling things that are made in the lab, but rather selling the benefits of making them.
Designing and making things in a fab lab cultivates essential dispositions, such as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, systems thinking, design thinking, problem-solving, and resiliency. It also builds literacy and skills in the workflows associated with computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, and material science.