Desktop manufacturing - putting the power of manufacturing in our hands.
Is made in the USA dead? Well, it depends. If you ask about traditional manufacturing, where big companies mass-produce thousandths of products at a time, then you're correct. It will most probably be made in china. Still, the new way to manufacture things, called desktop manufacturing, is thriving and expanding in the US and the whole world.
So what is desktop manufacturing?
Desktop manufacturing is a revolutionary, versatile technology that uses pressurized powders, liquid plastics, and laser routers to make custom-made components.
It is a new way to produce objects on a small scale, and like its name, the whole machine sits respectfully on your desktop. There are many types of desktop manufacturing; the most well-known is, of course, 3D printing, but they're a whole family, in which everyone is serving a different purpose.
Desktop manufacturing can help you create genuinely innovative designs without the limitations of traditional manufacturing techniques. It works at speeds that may be somewhat slower from injection molding but with the advantage of no limits to minimum size and quantity.
This industry is growing on such an outstanding phase while traditional manufacturing is shrinking (at least in the US) because of two main factors that differentiate these two. The first one is because the advantage china has over western countries is a cheap workforce. But in this small-scale production, it is most of the time a one-man-band or two at most. The second reason why desktop manufacturing is multiplying so rapidly is the custom touch it brings to the table. Every run can be customized in full to meet the creator's expectations and plans.
But more factors help this revolution keep rolling, mainly because of the community approach and open-source hardware and software. Open source enables the production and availability of cheap technology because the manufacturer does not need to invest that much in R&D. After all, things that take professional teams years to develop can be made on open source in a fraction of the time for FREE! Because all these skilled developers are contributing with their trial, error, and development to the community just because they love it.
And this takes us to the next factor contributing to the rapid growth of these cheap and fantastic machines. Crowdfunding exploded in our days, with sites such as kickstarter.com raizing millions of dollars for new technologies even before the entire development.
And it enables new startups to get the funding needed while building a community of enthusiastic fans looking out for the final product. This also allows early buyers to get even more discounted pricing on these great technologies.
Exploring this fantastic world should be pretty fascinating. Let's start with the good old 3D printing.
The 3D printing era.
In the past, when you decided to enter the 3d printing world, it would start with tens of thousandth of dollars just for the printer itself, even without calculating the cost of material (so-called toner!) to print with.
It has made a 360-degree turn and is now accessible for everyone for reasonable pricing. You can now get some printers for under 200 bucks, and even if you prefer a streamlined and feature-full machine, you can get it for around 500 to 1,000 dollars.
I will explain the 3D printing process in a few words for the few who are new to this concept.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, creates a physical object layer by layer from a digital design.
3D printing begins with a digital model called a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) file. You could download CAD files for free from online libraries such as Thingiverse and others. You could obtain it by scanning a physical object with a 3D scanner, or you could design a model from scratch with one of the 3D modeling software such as fusion 360.
Then you submit the CAD file to a slicer; the slicer modifies the model into a sequence of fine two-dimensional layers and creates a file through instructions (G-code) to suit the particular type of 3D printer.
The 3D printer has three main components to it. It has an extruder or hotend that melts a thermoplastic rope, and it also has an XYZ coordination system that controls the movement of the hotend and where the plastic should be placed. And the third thing it needs is a print bed on which the object is printed.
Laser cutting & engraving
And now we are excited to share with you the second child of the desktop manufacturing family, the laser cutter.
The technology behind the laser cutter is far easier to understand and master. A laser beam (a concentrated beam of light) can cut (or burn in some incenses) due to its focused power. It can cut various materials, including anything from paper, wood, cork, acrylic, and foam to different types of metals.
The best part is the flexibility. You can cut or engrave any shape or form, including complex and thin carved lines literally, making it suitable for creative art and design applications. You have to upload a picture or a sketch you drawn or downloaded from the web and walla! You have it on wood.
And like the 3D printers, laser cutters have become affordable in recent years, starting at less than 500 bucks.
And now, let's get to know the CNC mill. A rotating cylindrical cutter that moves along multiple axes and creates unique shapes, slots, holes, and details in an object.
CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control. It uses CAD files to guide the machine on the process. It is a similar technique to the 3D printing computer guidance.
There are various CNC machines, such as CNC lathes, CNC drilling machines, CNC plasma cutters, and CNC grinders. But the CNC mill is the most widely accessible and used.
The CNC mill is quite noisy and vibrates during work, and therefore I would not recommend it to be placed permanently on the desktop you work the whole day. Still, it for sure fits on a desktop and thus goes in our category of desktop manufacturing.
You have a wide angel of materials you can use in CNC milling, including Metals, Alloy Steel, Carbon Steel, Cast Iron, Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Copper, Magnesium, Zinc, and much more.
And this is something different! It is a technology that made the reproduction of a design obtained from outside (sometimes as 3D printed objects or so) a breeze.
It Creates a mold from any object you put on it, within the minute and without hassle.
The difference between vacuum forming and the other three listed above is that you can't do mass production with 3D printing or laser cutting. It is a one at a time process. But with vacuum forming, you only create a mold, and afterward, you can duplicate it as many times as you want.
We have to state here that even though it may sound fantastic, there are some downsides to vacuum forming. The biggest is the limitation on design. Your design needs to meet many rules to make it possible to do with vacuum forming. You could see more about vacuum forming and its limitations in our post here.
We didn't even touch the tip of the iceberg regarding what's possible with desktop manufacturing. There are many other forms of desktop manufacturing, such as CNC embroidering and CAD mug printing. And if you trust our opinion, we think this is the new industry leader, and here is the future of the manufacturing buried. And the best part of it is that it gives back the power of creation to the mass and democratize manufacturing and custom creations.