Magazine article The Futurist

Automated Fabrication

Magazine article The Futurist

Automated Fabrication

Article excerpt

Creating Ultracustomized Products

By using new computer-guided manufacturing processes, people may one day be able to customize every product they buy, from their furniture to their car.

Imagine sitting in a car showroom, putting together your dream car on the computer screen, and, later that week, having that car - constructed exactly to your specifications - delivered to you. Such an accomplishment may be possible early next century through a process known as automated fabrication.

Automated fabrication, or "auto-fab," is a set of technologies that automate the processes for building three-dimensional solid objects from raw materials. This growing industry uses controlled solidification of polymers, powders, and other raw materials, guided by designs drawn on ordinary desktop computers. Autofab allows designers to make quick design changes, construct an object to precise dimensions, and create products with complex geometric surfaces.

Autofab could have an even more fundamental impact on society and economics than computers have had. The introduction and growth of computers have been heralded by some as a new era of human history, the so-called "Information Age." This idea supposes that the greatest value in our society is now placed on information and on the tools and skills for storing and manipulating it. But it is possible that the Information Age will be short-lived, superseded by a new age in which humans acquire untold powers to manipulate the properties of matter in much the same way that computers manipulate information.

Customers and Co-construction

Autofab, along with computer-aided design and simulations, is now creating opportunities for manufacturers to satisfy the unique needs of customers. But to satisfy these needs, a manufacturer has to work with the customer to establish what those needs are. This is not always clear, even to the customer. Inviting the customer into the design, development, and production processes will likely lead to unexpected new products of which the customer is then a "co-constructor."

In co-construction, the customer does more than just give the manufacturer a list of specifications; rather, he or she actually participates in the ongoing experimentation with prototypes. The relationship between manufacturer and customer becomes longer term, and customer loyalty increases (as long as the quality of service is maintained). Product liability and other risks may be shared, along with patent rights to new technology. Instead of promoting their individual products, manufacturers market their "process prowess."

Customer co-construction represents a major change in the manufacturer's function in relation to customers. But it is only the tip of the iceberg of the coming Autofab Revolution.

The Autofab Society

Automated fabrication will have dramatic impacts on society.

* Entrepreneurial opportunities. The rise of autofab brings opportunities for entrepreneurs and small manufacturers - even individual consumers - to participate in the development, manufacturing, distribution, use, and repair of fabricators and related hardware and software.

* Reduced demand for skilled labor. Fabrication facilities are already realizing hundredfold and thousandfold increases in productivity. While this influence has been resisted by large American manufacturers and their unions, there is under way a relentless decline in the amount of human effort needed to produce manufactured goods. The ultimate effect of this trend is yet to be determined.

* The return of the "village crafts worker." If mass production loses its economic advantage, huge centralized factories could disappear and be replaced by smaller, community-based facilities. In a co-construction environment, the customer may be served better by a local owner and operator of a manufacturing shop. Thus, factories will become decentralized. For marketing purposes, these jobs shops may be united into chains or franchises, but the facilities and expertise will be distributed widely to meet local needs. …

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