March of the garage makers

Posted on 26 Sep 2012

Micro-factories and 3D printing are allowing people to make their own products, and small companies to save a lot of energy. Big corporations are taking notice.

The new industrial revolution is here, and it could be taking place in the garage next door.

About one third of the 127 exhibitors at the TCT Live show in Birmingham this week are involved in 3D printing and additive manufacturing technology. Ten years ago, 3D printing barely existed except in a crude form.

This is a growth industry. Today companies from Airbus and Boeing to the guy next door in his shed are using 3D printing technology to make and test out prototype parts. But forms of additive manufacturing – where parts are built up, not machined away – are just part of a movement of “micro-manufacturing” that is on the rise in workshops and spare rooms near you.

As reported by the BBC this morning, a strong trend of ‘make it yourself’ is developing.

The Maker Faire in New York this weekend (September 29-30) is the latest of Maker Magazine’s exhibitions, spanning four countries, for people who make stuff themselves. Electronic gadgets, stuffed toys, screen printing, 3D-printed collectables… even a cup cake car, all show what people are making themselves in a vibrant cottage industry. The Maker Faire UK returns to Newcastle on April 27-28, and a sister event was held in Brighton earlier this month.

Companies as well as individuals are investing in the small end of production, in this case in “micro factories”. At the Manufacturing the Future conference last week, run by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a Finnish professor told how the phenomena of a factory-in-a-box is growing, partly to reduce costs of production and partly to be super-flexible to respond to volatile demand.

Professor Reijo Tuokko, head of production engineering at Tampere University of Technology in Finland explained that it began as a way to reduce the size of machine tools in Japan, where smaller factories wanted to produce the same output as their peers. Some machine tool companies like Takashima Sangyo and Monozukuri persevered and became miniaturisation specialists, eventually forming the Desktop Factory, or DTF, Research Consortium. The group makes small, desktop-sized production systems suitable for fabricating and manufacturing small parts and products.

“The drivers are the environment and customization,” says Prof Tuokko. “These systems can deliver customized and personalized product in varying volumes. They occupy less space than traditional manufacturing plant and cost efficiency is massive, in some cases 98 per cent energy saving and 99 per cent material saving.”

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, says that the trend to make-it-yourself is not new: craftsmen have been making things for centuries.

What is new, Mr Anderson told the BBC, is the way that corporations are facing a new threat to the old ways of doing things from what he calls “an army of micro-manufacturers”.

And big companies are definitely sitting up and taking notice of the Maker movement. Intel is one of the sponsors of the Maker Faire in the US and big technology corporatiosn are beginning to hire “makers” for their research and development teams, according to the BBC’s report.

Billion dollar companies like Germany’s Bosch Rexroth and Festo are developing micro-factories for the same benefits that Professor Tuokko lists.

This is a disruptive movement, as it could potentially have a meaningful effect on the sales of machine tool companies whose tools are either a little too large for manufacture of fine parts, or who can’t compete on energy consumption.

The movement taps into what commentators such as Peter Marsh of The Financial Times calls “the new industrial revolution”, where we are seeing a shift in the entire manufacturing system from mass manufacture to mass personalization. 3D printers and desktop factories are enabling people to make what they want and while they are not currently affordable for typical households, more and more small and start-up companies are joining the march of the makers.