Last September, something remarkable happened. Something amazing and inspiring. Maybe it wasn’t exactly the cutting edge of technology, but it was a major breakthrough in my personal life. I completed a project. A big project. I cursed my father for years for his uncanny inability to finish anything he ever started. This was it! I was so dizzy with amazement, I burned the date of the event into the side. I finished something I started! Under my very own creativity, gumption, funding, and elbow grease, I created a rather large CNC mill.
But, alas that wasn’t it. I suppose I suffer what many ‘modern machinists’ (aka Makers) do. The never-ending desire to do better and more. After all, if it isn’t broken, it doesn’t have enough features! Right?
No, it’s not the want for better air handling, LED lighting, or even liquid-cooled tooling that makes this idea not quite complete. I was at a friend’s wedding talking about my achievement when the groom’s father pointed it out by asking, “So, what now?” Good point. I hadn’t thought about it. I mean, I know people that make an okay income doing just 3D printing. But they spend hours, I mean hours upon hours designing. I helped a guy upgrade his Ultimaker 2 last night. He admitted that it was strictly a labor of love and really only made minimum wage. His day job affords him that, and his kids are grown. Well, following my back injury, I am without a real job. I also have kids to worry about, so my underemployed status simply can’t last much longer. For the last week I’ve been busy dismantling the incredible structures I worked so hard to construct over the time at this place. A greenhouse, aviary, and three critter pens all coming down piece by wet, muddy piece. After cleaning the yard, I still have to tackle getting most of the garage into a shipping container. So, I have a little time of menial labor to think about it.
I did break down and open up Craigslist to peruse over jobs. Ugh, looking for a job like I’m really looking forward to it. In many ways, driving for Uber is a good gig and it frustrates me to even have to look at options. Construction work-“Must be able to lift 50 lbs all day long, work 50 hours per week plus every other Saturday, and be happy with $12 per hour. NO DRUGS!” Because you really expect someone to put up with those conditions sober!? There’s senior care, I suppose that’s not the worst. Continuing on down the old familiar job postings, SSDD, until I see an ad for a CNC machinist. Then another and another! One of those offerings was an operation specializing in a product that I recently pitched as a possibility to a friend. Well, my machine will only do a small range of materials, speaking from a manufacturing standpoint. Still, the possibilities are vast. I had to accept the message after seeing one job offering the employee a chance to earn their very own CNC. As much fun as it would be to go to work running these tools, why can’t I make my own money with my own tool?
You may have heard that the Divergent Blade is a primarily 3D printed super car boasting a 0-60mph in a face ripping 2.2 seconds. Additive manufacturing is what this practice is becoming known as, and it opens up a lot of doors to customization and parts reduction. I checked out a local plastics factory and saw their warehouse full of molds. A single mold might take more time to make to spec than the time it actually gets used. Then there’s the whole library of these things to keep up with. A printing machine can take up as little space as an office cubicle, including all the thousands of parts files. Then, think of the stock material. 3D printers are loaded with a largely universal spool. An operation can keep a variety of materials on hand and reliably implement JIT practices. CNC machining still requires rather large stock in the form of sheets, boards, or blocks in addition to the tools to rough the stock to size. The advantage here is that a wider variety of materials can be used. Plastics are amazing, and printing materials can come with wood or metal impregnated and even conduct electricity! Amazing, but when anything of size takes days to create, the CNC shines through. I would contend that not only is cutting material off far faster than extruding through a tiny hole, but also that the range of bits offers more options in how materials are milled.
I could go on and on about these two newest players in the factory. I mean, not that CNC is cutting edge, right? I had the chance to use a plasma machine that’s been in service for over 15 years and still running strong. The company that owns it probably has as many parts files for their plasma as I do for my little creation. So we come down to more the point of the story. I can make a living doing this sort of thing. So many people I know spend so many hours designing amazing masterpieces. Sure, you can sell a piece for a few Benjamins, but that just doesn’t put enough food on the table. One could be a clunky international corporation that invests in a quicker, more accurate way of making the parts they already fabricate by hand. There is really no doubt that the machines pay for themselves. Question is, if I’m not already operating with a distinct list of known parts to produce, can this machine create a whole business around itself? Will I eventually need to augment with 3D printing?
My guess is yes to both. Manufacturing is changing. That clunky corporation is only survived by ongoing construction. If you’ve been keeping up, you already know that 3D printing is taking on everything from human organs to entire houses. The industrial revolution was sparked by the realization that simple tools, levers and wheels, can be combined to minimize the exertion put in by humans. So we made a machine to pick, a machine to cut, a machine to thrust, a machine to plow, etc. Those machines replaced the labor, but at a cost that many still don’t see or understand. A machine that can cut is ultimately limited to that one single operation. You can see this played out clearly in a wood shop. One cutting tool, a table saw, simply cannot make all the cuts needed, so there must also be a miter saw, a Skil saw, and a variety of hand saws. A trim router is too small to hog out moulding profiles, but a large plunge router is too cumbersome to clean up a laminate edge. That big corporation with the plasma? Well, if 3D printing of buildings ever becomes commonplace, that whole international operation is going to sink.
Big tools cost big money. Big money doesn’t like to wallow in maybes and dreamy hopes of what might be. It is only convinced after a rigorous mashing of payroll, QC, and capital figures that any given machine will sufficiently replace the system already making them money. Auto assembly plants are sure trying to keep pace, but what are they going to do when a consumer is suddenly able to make their own larger than life printer and print their whole car for less than the cost of an assembly line model?
Manufacturing is changing. I’ve laid the claim to many folks that we are about to see an industrial revolution once again. This time, large scale factories are not going to wipe out swaths of housing and puke chemicals into the air 24/7 pumping out a single product by the thousands. I believe the element of mass production is going to fade out of manufacturing. I know that statement seems to contradict itself. I’m going to pick on vehicles again, because I swear there are now Three black Chevy Volts in my neighborhood and I don’t feel so much like an individual anymore. Get it in red, get aftermarket rims, or some shit! I got my car to be unique, and in only a couple years I see my doppelgangers in every other driveway. Haven’t motor companies romanticized the personal connection and identity we find in vehicles since the beginning? They can create the most ridiculous toaster on wheels, and somehow they know their target audience so well that a consumer has no idea how a dancing hamster is taking the money right out of their wallet. The salesman only has to smile while pondering where to blow his impending commission. What are all those money mongering executives and high rollers going to do when folks can print their own toasters on wheels? Start manufacturing spools of plastic?
The revolution will not be so alluring as to build massive plants to crank out thousands of identical products for the ultimate goal of wealth beyond 6 figures scoured systematically from unwitting consumers. No, this industrial revolution will harken a golden age of manufacturing, where art and human emotion can manifest into practical and unique solutions. A factory of the future must be ready for anything and willing to address needs one at a time, not en masse.
So, however I go about it, that’s where my machine and I are headed!