The Future of Work: From Bits to Atoms

What if I told you that it was possible to use a magic machine at home that could make anything…and that maybe you could use it to conjure up “things” to sell as part of your job?

Maybe you’d think I was crazy, but almost two years ago, we speculated that the web workers of the future may begin taking their digital designs and producing tangible items to sell, using online fabrication and production services such as Ponoko. Since then, the infrastructure of personal manufacturing has become gradually more accessible and affordable, suggesting that boutique production could become a viable career choice for many of us.

Last month’s issue of Wired explored some of the culture around  personal manufacturing, noting that “global supply chains have become scale-free, able to serve the small as well as the large, the garage inventor and Sony.” Wired’s piece drew some criticism, with Gizmodo suggesting that rather than being the the “future of American manufacturing,” the developments of the last few years are really only affecting hobbyists — who are actually just outsourcing work to China. Despite this, it’s clear that everything from open-source car designs to customized LEGO parts are just a click away.

“Thing” Directories and Fabrication Services

Companies such as Ponoko and Shapeways are providing end-to-end services that enable product designers to submit designs, have prototypes manufactured for review and then listed in online stores where customers can customize them, place orders and have items shipped.

Other services such as Thingiverse act as open-source directories of “construction files” for items as diverse as engagement rings and light-duty pliers. Elsewhere, Flexible Stream is offering free, downloadable portfolios of designer’s work for use in rapid manufacturing devices such as 3D printers and CNC machines. The company’s catalog includes objects as esoteric as collections of wood joints for making furniture.

Other creators are offering their designs as direct downloads from their own sites and blogs; designer Julien Madérou’s downloadable papercraft iPhone stand is a great example. Indeed, rather than printing such a design on paper, services such as Ponoko or Shapeways enable such designs to be fabricated from tougher materials, such as wood and metal.

3D Printers and Rapid Manufacturing Fabrication

Where the likes of Ponoko enable hobbyists to submit a design file for fabrication at a remote facility, for the more adventurous designer who’d like to make things at home, tools such as 3D printers are becoming more affordable and accessible.

New York’s MakerBot Industries are producing 3D printers that cost less than $1,000 and can purportedly manufacture any item that’s less than 4″x4″x6″. Though currently limited only to ABS plastic as a material, the price point and capability of these devices will only improve over time.

In parallel with these low-cost fabrication devices, networks of fabrication workshops are emerging as a kind of “coworking for machine shops.” The most prominent of these — TechShop – is concentrated in California. More recently Ponoko and ShopBot Tools (a manufacturer of CNC tools) launched a joint venture — 100kGarages — to bring together creative consumers and local fabricators in a global network of “garage workshops.”

Between fabrication services, “thing directories,” low-cost 3D printers and “comaking” workshops, the opportunities for web worker careers is growing, moving beyond the production of digital value and into a new world of boutique physical items.

Have you considered adding making and selling boutique items to your portfolio of skills?

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