Shorting the Factory Future

Posted on Saturday 26 August 2006

There’s an essay written by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang over on Samsung’s DigitAll Magazine called “Raising the Floor” (Link) that’s worth reading for those who regularly visit here. It’s mostly about the future of manufacturing. I’ve just read it. It’s well-written. But if you’ve followed my posts on this blog – like the “rocket launcher” (reLink) or the “smiley face” entry (reLink) – you’re probably familiar with or already have a sense of the possibilities about which he writes. I’ll pull out a few pieces and elaborate.

These capabilities will also give manufacturers the chance to learn more about how their products are used. In some cases, networked products will report back to manufacturers throughout their lives; in others, products will keep digital diaries that companies can recover in eco-friendly takeback programs.

This one is simple. A kirkyan is, for me, a special circumstance of just this scenario which Pang paints for his readers (for more on kirkyans try these links: reLink1, reLink 2, ISHUSH). I’m not especially interested in Big Corporate processes; I’m interested in the Individual. In Democratization (Note: my anti-piracy rants aren’t for the benefit of greedy corporations; they’re for a future of independents). Consequently I don’t recall previously posting how a kirkyan fits into their future systems (at least not on this blog). Personally, I’d rather not see that happen because it’ll be a privacy nightmare imo. But I expect it will.

The overall sense I get from Pang’s essay is that for him there is still a hub where things are manufactured and distributed the old way. I’ve said (most recently on the Core77 forum – Link) that “big manufacturers [will still be] squeezing pennies out of the old process”, so in the near-term (over the next 50 to 100 years) I agree that they’ll still be doing business that way. So for them, a kirkyan would be the mastermodel upon which the others are based; made using many of those old processes in which they have such large investments. Update the mastermodel (just like updating the MasterModel in Pro/E) and the rest updates automatically. Whereas I see the kirkyan being directly recycled and recreated, corporations would recycle the molds and make new one’s. Easy to do since the molds and the final product are intimately linked through the CAD or PLM software. So the difference is really just one small but hugely significant step.

Call centers can have cubicles; R&D centers, in contrast, need space for collaboration and gently encourage exploration and chance discoveries.

So what will the factory of the future be like? It will be aware of how users are reacting to both its latest products and still-under-NDA prototypes, feeding off streams of information coming in from prototypes, recycled units, market-watching software agents, and blogs and discussion boards. It will be able to shift production lines in a matter of days or hours, and will constantly incorporate the latest insights from the lab and the natural world. The combined effects of cascades of information and pressure for constant innovation will turn the factory floor from a space populated only by machine-tenders, into a space in which production and innovation happen simultaneously.

The reason I don’t go into the factory scenario is because I just don’t see a long-term future in that. Just as rapid-prototyped parts are giving way to rapid-manufactured objects, prototype kirkyans/mastermodels will give way to custom kirkyans. When parts can be fabbed anywhere, there’s no need for a “mastermodel” really. Everything becomes unique. Every object becomes “alive” (which is why the military’s autonomous/semi-autonomous UCAV efforts are so interesting to me – reLink).

And I disagree that “R&D centers” need space in the traditional sense. R&D can happen inside virtual worlds (the interaction can already occur; I’ve experienced it – reLink). When the day comes many, many years down the road, there will be no “factory”. There will only be localized rapid-manufacturing; the Star Trek replicator (to help illustrate the idea).

So the first wave that I see will be service bureaus and parts supply chains (I often use the automotive supply business as an example). Then we’ll have individual capability. It’s a little like publishing. There used to be a time when you pretty much needed a publishing press to get your manuscript out to a large audience. Now you can do it with a decent desktop printer. Indy comic book creators are doing that now and of course the support companies are springing up (like Lulu). Niche toymakers (like Itokin – reLink) are moving in that direction and the service bureaus are starting to sprout for them as well. And with more and more hackers and tinkerers emerging from their basements and congregating online, the business opportunities could be compelling for traditional modelmakers.

Back in 2000 I gave a presentation for where I believed Industrial Design and, with it, manufacturing was headed. The opening slide was a composite image I’d made showing a handcrafted toaster from the 1800′s that morphed through a series of increasingly ugly but efficient-to-manufacturer products until it started to return to form; until it returned to the first image. That’s what I see coming. There may well come a day when the factory is something like that once imagined by Rudy Rucker: a robot with little robots inside. But the problem with this is distribution. Why centralize when you can send the CAD file out and have it produced locally? inside someone’s customization shop or even inside the consumer’s home? That’s the future I see.

Where will they have learned the skills necessary to do well in this world? The unexpected but most likely answer is online games. Part of the appeal of massive multiplayer games like Entropia and Second Life is that they allow players to build all kinds of interesting virtual stuff, from bodies to buildings. …
In other words, countries with the most advanced game cultures today may take the lead in rapid manufacturing tomorrow.

And here you see the light that went off in my head when I first saw 3D videogames in the mid-90′s. It’s why I actually have an account for both these “games” and post so much on Second Life. It’s also why I’ve done things like take the “prim” geometry into manufacturing CAD (reLink).

This leads to a radical conclusion. The industrial world of rapid prototyping won’t be one that rewards cheap labor, but smart labor. Countries that compete on the basis of labor costs and nonexistent regulations may find that the game has changed.

I tend to agree but never really considered it “radical”. It’s why – in that earlier link to the Core forum thread – I don’t worry about staying employed; I keep up. I’ve been telling designers the same thing for quite some time now. The danger is for all the people in the Developed World who don’t pay attention; for the designers who ignore what’s coming… and coming fast. There will be nudges along the way I’m sure (the social issues that arise from empowering the underclasses in Third World countries may spark a few revolts which will make the news; for more on some of that, you might want to read some entries of mine on the SLFS site – “Flat Earth’s Shaky Virtual Ground” and “Avoiding A Short Shot“), but if they don’t prepare for it now, they’ll find themselves quickly replaced by smarter, more creative designers in developing countries who have the passion and drive to get ahead. Those who’ve seen the movie “Gattaca” should understand what I mean. Those of you who’ve not seen that movie, I strongly recommend it. There are some things technology isn’t likely to replace any time soon. But it’s also the one thing that any person can have in abundance in any country.

via Boing Boing

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