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 / Autumn 2011 / Issue 64(originally published by Booz & Company)


A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Fabrication

Better materials are particularly needed to reduce waste and hazard at the end of a product’s life, especially because the faster production cycles of digital fabrication may lead to increasing numbers of discarded products. Ultimately, the disposal of goods is a problem of information and logistics. Recyclers need to know what’s in a product to break it down into component materials safely. The companies that manage assembly of a product can (and, in our opinion, should) partner with recyclers, providing the information needed to safely and profitably disassemble it into raw materials.

• Be prepared for new misuses of technology. The most troubling side of digital fabrication is the potential for new forms of crime and abuse. In June 2010, received an order for a custom skimmer, a card-reading device that fastens to the card slot on an ATM. Cleverly designed skimmers can look just like part of the machine. Every time a customer inserts a debit card, the skimmer copies the card numbers and PINs for later extraction. The proprietors of i.materialise refused to fabricate the skimmer, but other 3-D printing services may not be as ethical.

Disruption has its downsides. A diversified supply chain, more widespread manufacturing literacy, and changing intellectual property practices will inevitably bring new forms of abuse and mishap. Regulations and conventional law enforcement might not be agile or thorough enough to keep up. Manufacturing as an industry will need to promote new best practices and professional norms — in collaboration with a more engaged customer base and a wider range of manufacturing, distribution, and reclamation partners.

The Future of Detroit

Taken as a whole, digital fabrication and information sharing herald a diversification of the manufacturing ecosystem. Economies of scale will still exist. Large manufacturers that adapt will benefit significantly. Not every customer will be a maker. Most will be happy to purchase products created by others, but they will choose from among a far greater number of producers and innovators. Remember that despite the popularity of file sharing, the music and movie industries are not dying. The mainstream producers of goods may face similar challenges and opportunities.

To Dale Dougherty, publisher of Make magazine, Detroit represents the prototypical city of the future for digitally enabled manufacturing. Detroit has a large population in need of employment, knowledge of a wide range of manufacturing techniques, and a surplus of affordable real estate. In July 2010, Dougherty convened the first of a series of “Maker Faire” expos in the Motor City (similar expos had taken place since 2006 in the San Francisco Bay area and Austin, Texas). Three hundred and twenty-five Michigan-based manufacturers of products, including knitted goods, soap, machine tools, rockets, and auto components, showed off their work to the public.

Dougherty envisions cities like Detroit fostering new industries of digitally enabled fabrication. Large manufacturers might outsource designs to local micro-factories, leveraging supply chains to build highly responsive production networks. Unions might help their laid-off members become entrepreneurs, providing group buying power for health insurance as well as materials and services. Whether digital fabrication will have this kind of transformative effect on troubled economies isn’t known; indeed, no one can predict exactly how the new, disruptive technology will play out. But we can already guess at the capabilities that will be needed by manufacturers to win in this new game. The history of digital technology suggests that the winners will be those that embrace decentralized models, exchanging the kinds of information, materials, fabrication processes, knowledge, and labor that, for the first time, can travel freely across a network of avid makers.

Reprint No. 11307

Author Profiles:

  • Tom Igoe is an associate arts professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (NYU-ITP), where he oversees work on research and teaching related to the physical design of computer interfaces and sustainable practices in technology development. He is the author of Making Things Talk (O’Reilly Media, 2007), and a cofounder of Arduino LLC, an open source microcontroller platform.
  • Catarina Mota is a Ph.D. candidate at the Faculdade de Ciencias Sociais e Humanas Universidade Nova de Lisboa and a fellow at the International Collaboratory for Emerging Technologies, a partnership between the Science and Technology Foundation of Portugal (FCT-MCTES) and the University of Texas at Austin. She is cofounder of the openMaterials research group.
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  1. Limor Fried and Phillip Torrone, “Million Dollar Baby,” 2010 (PDF): Overview presentation of open source hardware companies by Adafruit.
  2. Phillip Torrone, “Open Source Hardware 2009,” 2009, : List and overview of open source hardware projects in existence in 2009.
  3. Edward Tse, Kevin Ma, and Yu Huang, “Knockoffs Come of Age,” s+b, Autumn 2009: Introduction to China’s shan zhai companies and their transition from piracy to competitive innovation.
  4. Eric von Hippel, Jeroen De Jong, and Steven Flowers, “2010: Comparing Business and Household Sector Innovation in Consumer Products: Findings from a Representative Study in the UK,” 2010: Survey of the development and modification of consumer products by product users in a representative sample of 1,173 U.K. consumers age 18-plus.
  5. Wohlers Associates, “Wohlers Report 2011,” 2011: Yearly in-depth analysis of the additive manufacturing industry worldwide.
  6. For more on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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