Making Micro Stuff In Micro Factories

A revolution in manufacturing is coming. The power of automation and the dropping of the costs of tools is going to change the landscape of how thing get made.  How this going to happen and what the impact will be will probably have as large an impact as the industrial revolution did back in the late 18th Century.

Many of us grew up in an era of giant factories. In the beginning, they were in our backyards, then they moved to China and became even giant-er. Some factory floors for making electronic boards and products are now so large you have to drive around them! So, why the heck am I talking about tiny factories? Is this even attainable or practical?

I always thought those large manufacturing facilities dotting the landscape of China and other industrialized nations were like computer mainframes of yesteryear. Built with huge capital investment, these facilities are shared between users, each one utilizing only a portion of the available capacity.

Now, what happened to mainframes? The era of these computing monsters was followed by an explosion in personal computing. PCs took something enormously expensive that was previously shared by many and placed it in the hands of individuals.

The same is going to happen in manufacturing in general, and the manufacturing of electronics in particular. Here are four reasons for why I think we are going to see an explosion in “personal manufacturing.”

The first reason is that the equipment needed to produce electronic devices is getting smaller and cheaper. Machines for producing electronic boards are not all that sophisticated. Your laser printer has more parts in it than an SMT “chip shooter” does.

The chief reason these machines are so expensive is because they only sell in tiny volumes. As more and more people start to buy or lease their manufacturing equipment, prices will go down — as they always do when sales increase. In a perfect positive feedback loop that invariably forms around emerging technologies, SMT machines, reflow ovens and other necessary components of electronic board production will become smaller and cheaper, then cheaper still as they get even smaller.

Naturally, these compact machines will have relatively modest performance, but that’s okay. Office laser printers are very slow compared to professional printing equipment, but we rarely see this as a limitation. In any case, the laser printer in your office isn’t there to print a large volume of documents. It is there to print on demand, when you need it, without waiting and scheduling…

There you have it, my four reasons for why micromanufacturing is about to take off in a big way. Think anyone here in Asia gets it? Absolutely not! It took me two years to put my own micromanufacturing facility together. There are thousands of machinery suppliers, but very few had anything remotely useful for my mini-factory project. I had to combine things in unexpected ways and invent my own gear where none was readily available. Two years on, my mini factory is alive and working well, but the effort turned out to be much larger than I anticipated.

Micromanufacturing the future

It took him two years to set up his small factory in China.  I think that here in Connecticut that I could set up an automated assembly plant in two to three months just on local resources, that is if I didn’t vend just about all of it out, which I would.

What’s happened is that technologies that were very expensive have had the costs of things like microcontrollers drop dramatically in the  last few years.  That has allowed the creation of powerful small machines that put production technologies that heretofore were only available to large companies and specialty businesses.

I’ve posted about how this is enabling smaller businesses and even individuals to run what are essentially factories in their homes.

This is going to have profound impacts on the way things get made. The nature of the factory and how it works is, in a way returning to it’s roots.

 read a prediction of yours that 3D cutters like the Othermill will be the new sewing machine of the 21st Century. What other technologies might it replace or reinvent?

One prediction for what the Othermill will reinvent is the way we retrain and repurpose our “decommissioned” workforces. We need an efficient way of bringing people up to speed on manufacturing, programming, and design, and we do not have a good way of doing that as a nation. Our ability in the US to successfully retrain and close skills gaps will determine how well we do in the future. 

What are the key ways you see CNC technology contributing to the “rebirth” of manufacturing in the US?

Accessible CNC gives people options. It makes it possible for people to get an engineering education in their own home, on their own time, for less than the cost of one semester of a class at a university. It also makes it possible for people to build small businesses that are more profitable.

Here’s why: when you control the means of production for the product you sell, you eliminate the margin lost as your goods change hands. With marketplaces for small-batch goods, an individual can be their own manufacturer. Businesses that previously might not have been viable are now able to thrive.

Accessible CNC technology also changes the game by allowing individuals to create parts at the same quality that a factory can. It levels the playing field and truly enables democratized, distributed manufacturing without sacrificing quality. It’s not only a rebirth, but a whole reboot of the way we think about how manufacturing can be done, and by whom.

In the late 19th Century, the sewing machine allowed the creation of a huge number of small businesses run out of apartments and homes. The machine could be purchased on credit and the startup costs were low, which made the corresponding small businesses very easy to set up.  The sewing machine made possible the NYC garment industry.

It’s likely that the tying together of small computers, precision motor drives and cheap flexible platforms will have an even bigger impact. Here’s a case in point. A tiny little machine shop in an apartment in NYC.

Of course his shop has grown since.

Tom Lipton has actually set up his life so that he lives in his shop and his wife’s art studio.

Of course the new tools won’t require a lot of people working because once the setup is started, they will work for themselves.

Doing great stuff.

Of course small shops doing small work for niche markets has been around for some time.

What’s going to change is that the internet allows those tiny little  shops a global reach. Which will allow those little shops to interface with each other to make increasingly complicated products.  Think about a car, designed around parts made specifically for the customer and assembled in a garage near his home.  That’s just one of the least remarkable4things that are coming. Here’s some links of previous posts that I have done. And check out the ongoing “Let’s build series” for more.






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  2. J Greene · May 21, 2016

    Great work! Love your site. You mentioned the “Let’s build series” at the end of your post but do not provide any way to find the series (ie, links, information, etc.) Cruel and unusual punishment! Where can I find this series?

    Love the site. Keep it up!


    • jccarlton · May 21, 2016

      Oops, forgot to put the link in. Fixed. Lots more coming as I put the posts together. Unfortunately, the posts are getting to be real work as I scan stuff in, photograph and video, check references and find stuff on the internet.


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