Self-Manufacturing: How Close Are We?

When I was a kid, the most exciting Christmas gift my parents got me was a green Honda QA50 mini-bike.  Until I was upgraded to a cooler Honda Z50 a few years later, I rode the hell out of that little thing.  Even stripped a great deal of skin off my 9-year-old body the first day riding– then got right back on, to my mother’s horror, and kept going.

But the most useful present was a Science Fair 100-in-1 electronics kit.

You can see it on the right side of this 1972 advertisement from Radio Shack.  It was a board loaded with electronics, including a meter and speaker, and used pre-cut wires and spring terminals to virtually assemble all sorts of cool projects.  I annoyed my family by creating a household radio station, harassed the pets with a sound synthesizer, and amused myself endlessly with a lot of trial-and-error spaghetti wirings before I really understood what was going on.  But in the process of doing so, and by scribbling notes all over the big manual’s pages, I developed the knowledge of electronics that eventually helped land my first professional job (with Texas Instruments) and cultivated a deep love for tinkering that has never died. 

As a parent I wanted to share the same excitement of self-discovery with my kids, and was saddened that, although they’re just as geeky as I am, they have never shown the same kind of curiosity.  I think we still have a largely-unused experimenter’s kit gathering dust somewhere in storage… waiting for grandchildren?

I’m concerned that societal changes since my childhood have reduced interest in this sort of activity.  Or maybe kit assembly was more of a niche than I’ve acknowledged.  Either way, as manufacturing increasingly abandons expensive regions like the United States, a technical void is left that’s looking to be filled by something new.  Enter self-manufacturing.

The thought is that, at some point, many advanced products could be purchased in kit form for minor user assembly or even mostly manufactured at home.  This could include cell phones and other common electronics appliances.

The plastic component aspect is already there.  Anyone with access to 3D design services can submit custom part files to build-on-demand services like Shapeways.  For those who want to bring this closer to home, 3D “printers” continue to decline in price and improve in capability.

This advent not only opens up the area of customization, but serves repair and maintenance needs by enabling ad hoc creation of parts long discontinued by original manufacturers… extending the lives of products otherwise rendered frustratingly useless by simple part failures.  Haven’t we all been there?  My trusty QA50 suffered a few mishaps like broken fenders and such.  There’s a nice little niche aftermarket for it now, but there was a stretch where getting replacements was next to impossible… so my motorbike suffered.  Note that even the aftermarket web page shows unavailable parts.  Imagine being able to rig these up yourself!  Long tail economics at its finest.

And the possibilities go beyond basic parts, too.  Exciting developments in printing electronics by extending ink jet technology are well underway and promise to blow the doors off conventional circuit card manufacturing.

The common scenario cited starts with a customer using an online configurator to select and mash-up the features of a desired product.  The configurator would then select (or even design on-the-fly) the necessary circuitry.  This would then be coupled with a custom casing and other components.  The result could be ordered online as a simple-to-assemble kit or downloaded to the customer’s own home manufacturing setup.

All indicators point to us being right on the threshold of this being practical, at least for early adopters.  But there are potential pitfalls.  In the sort of world envisioned here, money would be made in three main areas: raw materials,  designs, and support services.  The margins tend to be low for the first, although supply and demand could change that if self-manufacturing takes off.  But design revenue depends on intellectual property (IP) protections, and that’s an increasingly bothersome issue these days.  Consumers typically fail to see value in IP and think that “soft” items should be free.  How will design providers protect their products and services?

I would expect the same sort of underground sharing of files for self-manufacturing purposes that we presently see with music.  The easy answer is that, ultimately, the design work will be mostly open source and revenue will be relegated to raw materials and services that aren’t as subject to hijacking (delivery, equipment repair, etc).  The music industry still has not successfully transitioned to such a model yet though so this is questionable for any other ventures with similar vulnerabilities.

Coders won’t be left out of this future.  Operating systems and applications will still be needed, and in self-manufacturing circles I expect Linux and related open source tools to play a huge role.  In my opinion, MeeGo for one is very well-suited for success here.

Regardless of any hurdles, self-manufacturing is coming.  If you doubt, attend events such as the Open Hardware Summit (15 September 2011 in New York City) and prepare to be amazed.  There may even be Make-type events in your area… check around if you’re interested!  And I can’t wait to see what a new wave of device-hacking teenagers cobbles up…

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10 responses to “Self-Manufacturing: How Close Are We?

  1. What actually angers me here, and I’m not one to get emotional much less ANGERED is that parents these days don’t let their children get hurt and thereby “learn” how to deal with life. As a person, both young and old, you learn how to deal with pain, mental and physical, by actually experiencing it and how to cope.

    I feel the only way to grow as an individual IS through hardship and if you’re always protected from it, you’re literally sent into the world at a serious disadvantage to those who know how to cope. These are the things that you can’t learn by simply reading a book or watching it happen to others.

    You know how an RPG game works? You earn experience. You can sometimes get a little from reading or watching, but these games mimic real life a lot – You get the most by DOING! If you’re not allowed to experience life, both the joys and the pains, then you’re not growing as a person.

    As for the rest of your article.. uh, cool? hehe… I’m always all over the place with what I take away from articles, I know! :)

    My company actually sells a 3D printer called Solido. It uses some PVC material on a roll and lays them down over each other to “build up” the model. When done you have a block of sheets that you peel using tweezers for example. It’s cool, but has obvious limitations. However for the education market, 90% of our customers, I do think it’s the best long-term fit compared to other options. But not something I think would fit well into a self-manufacturing system anywhere due to its design and material use, but who knows how that would all play out.

    Also, shouldn’t it be “cobble up” in the last sentence, not “cobbles”? I always mix that use up, so not sure and just asking.

    • Thanks for the comments! And I agree completely, except for “cobble”– “cobbles” is correct, because the object is “wave”, not “teenagers”. ;)

      And I’ve heard of Solido but have not kept up with it. I appreciate you adding the reference!

  2. Pingback: Randall Arnold: Self-Manufacturing: How Close Are We? | MeeGo

  3. Hey great article. I completely agree with your points on self manufacturing. However, I disagree with your assumptions on teenagers. As an embedded systems engineering student I feel today’s youth puts a larger emphasis on visual feedback. As a personal owner of these electronic kits I feel what limits them is the lack of a touch screen and the needed pieces to make an end system (obviosuly its a limited one and this would be the final projects). For students looking to move into the field of electronics today, its hard to think of the powerful devices we use as the basic timers and pieces available in these kits. The interest to learn electronics will be everlasting. How we learn about and experience elctronics as children seems to change every year. The kits will change though and self-manufacturing may have something to add.

    But before we reach this stage in the consumer market we will see a shift to this in the industrial markets first. 3D printers and new circuit board printing technologies will allow rapid prototyping of new devices. If we can get engineers to build these skills into their “tool bag” and more acceptance and embrace for the open source community; we would see quicker to market times and more sold and refined builds. I believe it will be a natural progression and that it has already began. Hopefully Meego will be tailored to fit this model and gain speed as a platform.

    • I can’t see where we disagree, since I can’t find fault with anything you said.

      My observation has been, at least locally, that teens are not as fired up about “this geek stuff” as my generation and those prior were. I don’t just limit that to my sons– school classes in certain creative and technical arts have been increasingly cancelled around here due to lack of interest.

      But I don’t blame our offspring. As a society we in the US don’t put forth the sort of bold, imagination-firing visions that we used to. Our leaders aren’t leading in that area. IMO we need that vision back FAST.

  4. I suppose when you put it like that we do agree :). However, if you look at the contestants for school science fairs and all the contests that Intel and other companies hold for teens and young adults. It may be that current technologies have made it easier to accomplish tasks that once would have been very challenging. Like all the cool things happening with arduino projects. I still believe there is a thirst for technology in todays youth. Its just easier now more than ever to get distracted with playing with it rather than learn about it. Kids want to play all the new games coming out, not learn how to create them. I think a stronger push for math and science in schools and more funding is greatly needed but the desire to learn isn’t the problem. I think embedded systems is about to boom hard and that it will be the youth will have a great deal to do with this.

    • NOW we disagree… but only a bit. ;)

      Back in the Jurassic we were “taught to learn”. IMO that was the single best approach to education: priming the pump. But I’ve seen with my two sons that today’s approach is much more about throwing buckets of mind-numbing facts at them and getting them to pass periodic state-mandated assessment tests. That sort of thing can wear down a person’s will and even extinguish curiosity. They’ll get enough of that as adults– I would rather they be encouraged to explore more as kids. If I could have afforded it, they would have gone to Montessori, and I’ll bet that could have made a big difference in their thoughts on learning. As it is, they lack the hunger I had as a kid but, as you note, another contributor to that is the fact that technology today is slickly gift-wrapped for them.

      I’m not all gloom and doom, though… I do think it’s possible to re-ignite an age of discovery like we had in the 1970s. We just need a paradigm shift. Self-manufacturing? Nanotechnology? Green energy? Deep space exploration? I’m curious…

  5. Those little Hondas can take you a long way… http://www.deathmonkey.org/

  6. Pingback: Self-Manufacturing: How Close Are We? | post404

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