Custom manufacturing

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Using custom manufacturing a Wired journalist with no design experience designed his own an electric guitar in eMachineShop and had the parts printed to spec (September 2005, [1]).

Fabrication lab

"Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) ([2] [3]), makes a reasonably good case "that soon every house will have its own personal fabricator". He has already taken an important step - he has shrunk the personal fabricator down to a single room's worth of off-the-shelf tools, all of which are available right now." [4]

Current precision of cutting (Epilog Legend 24TT) and milling (MDX-20) tools is about 25-50 microns.

The CBA fabrication labs are already used to produce peculiar one-off individualised devices, such as GPS-enabled tags for sheeps, electrode-driven device to measure the fat content of milk, motion-detector security system to protect a personal diary.

3D printers

  • Currently quite expensive, around $30,000 in 2006, but will get much cheaper very soon. The RepRap project aiming at a cost of under $600 for a 3D printer, not including the cost of the computer which drives it.
  • Desktop Factory to introduce 3D printer for $4,995 USD
  • The Polecat UAV is built using 3D printing [5], which makes it relatively cheap. This development is a taste of things to come when manufacturing anything will be cheap and easy.

Domains of Custom Manufacture

Custom manufacturer will initially be restricted to specific domains. The first commercially successful applications will include:

  • Bespoke clothing.
Laser cloth-cutters can already cut shapes to order. Knitting machines can already knit to a programmed pattern. Couple that with a 3D body scanner that computes the ideal shape and pattern, and VR technology that allows you to visualize the results ahead of manufacture.
  • Model Making.
In the 1980s a computer controlled 'wing cutter' was used to cut polystyrene blocks for model aircraft to order. The user could dial in desired characteristics such as weight, span, optimal wind speed, the computer computed a best aerofoil section, and then proceeded to cut the wing accurately. A large library of 'classic designs' was also developed over time, enabling the hobby shop which bought the wing cutter to offer a wide range of wings without keeping large stock levels.
  • Custom ice-lollies
In the 1970s a very impressive looking machine, I believe it used dry ice, and a supply of several different fruit juices could make a lolly to order. It was billed as a robot, but I think hardly counts as it was a purely mechanical device using a controller adapted from a washing machine. It would be great to have a picture here.
  • Print-to-order
In London's Carnaby street, since at least the mid 70's, spoof personalised newspaper front pages could be printed to order, e.g. "RyanG Lands on the Moon", and sold to tourists. Modern print-to-order is more sophisticated, and can allow many small variations in advertising to be tried out in an advertising campaign.
  • Prototyping
Automated custom manufacture is particularly useful for mould making, where moulds can be made direct off CAD design files.

A problem with less restricted domains is the wide range of both materials and manufacturing techniques. I doubt for example that the CBA can do glass blowing, or the steps necessary to harden ball bearings. It is likely that the more general Custom Manufacturing plants will require robots with very human 'grip' so as to avoid the cost of adapting numerous existing tools such as lathes, drills, band saws and paint sprayers.

From custom manufacturing to universal assemblers

Further path:

  • miniaturise all components of a personal fabricator
  • combine it all together into a set of compatible devices
  • add some robotics so that manual labour is not needed for assembly
  • make it use cheap standard raw materials and parts
  • simplify, make more user-friendly, interface with an online library of designs (such as Instructables)

We have desktop manufacturing. OK, that doesn't actually sound too far-fetched, but would quickly make the fabricators ubiquitous and extremely useful.

Next steps:

  • continue the miniaturisation
  • replace the components one by one with nanotechnology based machines
  • optimise the design of a fabricator to make sure no space/matter is wasted

Eventually, you converge on the nanofactory.

another path from custom manufacturing to universal assemblers

See replication.
  • Demand for personal fabricators continues to increase
  • Parts continue to break on these fabricators. Some people buy identical 2 fabricators to keep producing things even when the other fabricator is waiting for parts.
  • People realize that rather than waiting for replacement parts to be shipped, "temporary" versions of these parts can be fabbed by the other fabricator.
  • People who own fabricators share and improve not only design files for final products, but also "temporary" internal replacement parts for the fabricator.
  • People continue reducing the mass and cost of the parts of the fabricator that *cannot* be fabbed by their other fabricator, in 2 ways:
    • "simplifying" the design, replacing a difficult-to-fabricate part with parts that are well within the limitations of the fabricator
    • "improving" the design, extending the domain of parts it can fabricate (improving the precision, or getting it to work with harder materials, or getting it to work with cheaper raw materials, etc.), so that it can now fabricate a wider variety of items (including a wider variety of fabricator parts).

Eventually this converges on replication, a fabricator that, given the appropriate design files and enough raw materials, can make practically every part necessary to build a duplicate fabricator. (This is likely to actually be a collection of specialized fabricators).

Replication allows exponentially increasing numbers of people to have their own personal fabricators.

After that,

  • continue improving the precision until you reach the scale of atoms
  • optimize the design of the fabricator to reduce waste
  • add some robotics so that manual labour is not needed for assembly

Eventually, you converge on the nanofactory.



Now you have a nanofactory (vision, 60Mb video). This is already functional nanotechnology and will set off the final stage of the revolution (super-exponential computing power growth and the singularity).

It is tempting to believe that this technology will be used by "anybody" to "make anything." But keep in mind that virtual reality will almost certainly exist by the time this technology rolls out, and people will have already been exposing themselves to anybody making anything. Though we do not know what people will choose — to act in virtual reality, or to act in the material world, it will likely consume fewer resources and be more immediately real (to the mind's perception) to work in virtual reality. The ability to manufacture a car for free is interesting; The ability to instantly be somewhere else (through virtual reality) is even more interesting. The ability to access a completely imagined virtual world is even more interesting, and inaccessible to a car.

Further steps:

  • break down the nanofactory from a single machine into small parallelised units, each capable of producing small nano-objects to spec
  • make the units as small as possible

Finally, we have a nanoassembler. By that time instead of manufacturing "cars", or even flying cars, we would more likely be manufacturing small robotic proxies for manipulation and observation of the physical world, computers (computronium, smart matter) and neural interface devices.

Final step:

  • make it possible for this assembler to make copies of itself
Nanoassembler and nanocomputer

We have a universal self-reproducing nanoassembler. Finally an end to material scarcity. This would signify final liberation of the man and the control of mind over matter. This is a posthuman level, where turning all dumb matter into smart matter is finally possible.


  • 2010-2020: custom manufacturing spreads in different fields
  • 2020-2025: tabletop fabricators available
  • 2030: nanofactory designed
  • 2035: nanoassemblers designed

See also


This is a factual article as opposed to fiction or scenario. It describes the current state of the field and explains expected future developments without speculation or fantasy.

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