I’ve been thinking a lot about CNC machines lately. My workshop runs on them and they are hugely productive: insert CAD file, out comes usable parts. My favorite for its sheer speed and versatility is our laser cutter; it’s fast, can make big things, and can use real, strong materials.
I’m working with Jonathan Ward and Mike Estee at Otherlab to build a CNC machine with the capacity of a laser cutter but the cost of a desktop inkjet. We’re building it under the DARPA MENTOR program; the goal is very low-cost, open source machines that can be placed in classrooms. Students would gain access to CNC machines that can produce a variety of useful machines, mechanisms, and hands-on lessons.
I believe DARPA, like me, is concerned about the future of manufacturing and where the manufacturing base is. The last few decades have seen manufacturing magnetically move to geographic places with low wages — so much so that it’s now difficult to get high-quality things made in the United States. I don’t think this will last; I believe in a future with technologies like Nike’s Flyknit, a highly automated, almost-CNC way of making shoes using only a few parts and a few people.
If there’s a future for American manufacturing, it’s in this type of automation and robotics. But if manufacturing jobs are going to be replaced by CNC, what are we all going to work on? We should be building a generation of machine designers, product designers, and market designers to tell those machines to build the machines we need to make the things we need for the markets that need them. A country full of end-market consumers isn’t sustainable.
It’s exciting to see different communities, large and small, pushing manufacturing toward this future of highly specific CNC machines. Every day new projects pop up around building open source CNC machines, 3D printers, laser cutters, mills, and lathes. This year we’re making a machine for high school students, but we hope many other machines are produced to complete the low-cost CNC workshop of the future.
My real dream is that we improve these machines with every generation, and that each community leverages the progress in all the others. The knowledge of how machine tools are built and more importantly, designed, needs to be much, much more accessible. Makers of new CNC machines should specify the tolerances, repeatability, and capacities of their machines. We need to measure which ones are hitting their specs, and improve each other’s machines with rigorous machine design so that our specs keep improving.
Let’s share components, drivers, software, firmware, and hardware and make it a cheaper sandbox for all to play in. This is how the open source CNC communities can make a serious dent in changing the way things are made and the way we educate the people who will make the machines that make things in the future.
I hope the low-cost CNC we produce for the DARPA program helps spur this process, giving students firsthand experience with machines that make machines, and enabling them to design the plethora of CNC machines of America’s manufacturing future.