Eating Our Own Dogfood — or Is This Just Shameless Promotion?

At Handibot, we’re betting on digital fab!

Having proclaimed the virtues of digital fabrication as a way to make local, small-manufacturing competitive again, I need to explain that for me this is not just an abstract concept. At ShopBot/Handibot, we’re betting on it. So, the easiest way for me to clarify and illustrate the type of manufacturing that I have been describing is to just lay out what we are doing; what it is that we are betting can realistically work — shameless promotion be damned (and, FYI here’s the explanation of dogfooding).

We manufacture every day in the digital fab way …

Our Handibot tool is a digital fab product. And, it is a blatant experiment for us. Yep, I do believe this tool to be “an innovative platform for evolving tomorrow’s smart tools in an open-innovation environment”. But marketing hype aside, it is a product designed and optimized for production by small-shop, digital fabrication and for evolution within an open, distributed-manufacturing network. Handibot manufacturing is representative of a complete production approach for the new industrial revolution. It is similar to other approaches to digital fab I’ve discussed previously. So, here’s what it’s all about …

Handibot V2.0, Brian Owen digital design

The design of Handibot is based on the key attribute of digital fabrication, that with this method complexity comes free. We use this attribute in our design and engineering for both assembly and function. We rely on intricately machined features and interconnecting components that can be thought of as “digital-fab joinery”. The cutting and machining of such features and components would have been prohibitively expensive and time consuming before the ready availability of digital fabrication equipment such as affordable CNC tools. Now, with digital fab, such work can be done almost in passing as a component is being cut out. Basically, it is just as easy for a digital tool to cut a curved or complex feature as it is to cut a straight line.

Checking digitally-fabbed Handibot parts

It is just as easy for a CNC tool to make a complex joint or fitting as to cut something square. The tool does not care. Sure, it might take a few seconds longer, but the point is that engineering can now be designed into parts in ways that would have been impossible, prohibitively expensive, or too time consuming to embed into production in the past. Now, we can make “smart parts;” parts that help assemble themselves because of their designed-in features. Have a look at the digital-fab joinery in Handibot: interlocking mortise and tenon elements with integrated fastenings.

Complexity of form and function supports easily assembly. While not necessarily automatic, the use of the approach makes assembly quick, sturdy, and because it is interlocking and precise, it is error-preventing. Note that conceptually, at a macro-scale, smart parts made with today’s subtractive digital fab tools anticipate some of the smart, self-assembling, nano-materials many imagine for our future. This is the digital production version we have to work with today. For Handibot, using digital fab in production allows manufacture of plastic and aluminum parts to be done efficiently and competitively in small or medium volume. We are not locked into large batches of injection molded components.

We might have been able to develop a fast-growth business model for Handibot and designed the product in a manner more appropriate for for off-shore injection molding. Injection molding at higher volumes could make the parts and assemblies less expensive and potentially increase the market breadth. But such advantages are sometimes more imaginary than real. And, they dictate a different set of benefactors for the value-creation gains derived from manufacturing than what happens with in-house production done locally using new technology tools.

In “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution“, Chris Anderson diagrammed the efficiency and competitiveness of digital fab compared to centralized mass production processes such as injection molding.

The “duck” idea here is that until one gets to thousands of ducks, it is cheaper to make the duck with digital fab (3D printing, in this case) than with injection molding. Note that the cost of production is relatively low and constant for small runs of digitally-fabricated parts.

Chris’s example contrasts high-initial-cost injection molding with 3D printing, but the comparison holds true for contrasts between capital-intense mass automation production and digital fabrication of any type. Whether it is additive-fab or subtractive-fab, the enabler here, and the essence of digital fab rationale, is the precision in the output of the tools and their fidelity to the digital model — all making small and medium volumes practical.

Interestingly, the original, digital fab tools were large industrial versions actually developed for automated mass production. Years ago, the cost of this equipment was too high for small producers and the equipment was much less programmable. Today there is a flexibility and adaptability in the tools that comes from 25 years worth of advances in micro-controllers and software. Costs have come down in parallel with the technology improvements to make digital fab readily accessible to small shops. It’s been such an impressive decrease in costs that the process has been described as a democratization of the tools of production. Now, a small, digital-fab manufacturing operation can be created with little capital.

Of course, we can appreciate that there will always be situations where centralized, mass-production makes sense. But for many products, there is a volume range in which digital fab can be competitive and thus be supportive of alternative new manufacturing strategies.

The Handibot crew at our small “demonstration” factory for digital fabrication in Durham

A key benefit of manufacturing with digital fabrication is that changes and modifications to a design are readily incorporated into production at little cost. In traditional approaches, if the design of an injection-molded product needs to be modified. It is an expensive and time consuming process to rebuild the molds and get the changes incorporated into production. For that reason, improvements to a product are not usually made until the next time the product is fully redesigned and all the old inventory has been used up. This creates the typical release-and-obsolescence cycle for many products.

With digital fabrication, a change can be incorporated into production often with just a few hours of design work, followed by switching out the files on the digital fab production tools. The files change; some fixtures may change; and documentation is updated. Typically it takes just a few minutes on the floor and the modifications and improvements are seamlessly in production.

Handibot 1.0 to 1.1 improvement for easier user access. New parts can be machined by the tool itself.

Because the upgrade process is so easy, it encourages frequent small iterations to a product. And, because the product is assembled with digital fab joinery, the upgrade iterations can often be straightforwardly integrated into existing products and offered as upgrades — thus extending the life of the product and making it more competitive in the market. It all creates the opportunity for an active community around a product that contributes to the continuous process of incremental improvement.

Evolution of Handibot … so far

Because the design models are digital and portable, and because digital fabrication can be cost competitive even in small and medium runs, digital fabrication thus also allows manufacturing of the same product to happen in different locations — there is no particular advantage to concentrating manufacturing in one location. Instead digital fab supports growth through a form of distributed manufacturing offering opportunities for local entrepreneurs to engage, participate, and collaborate. This means that manufacturing can happen closer to where a product is used to make local support easier and to provide opportunities for training and maintenance. Distributed manufacturing can also make use of locally available materials as well as reducing transportation and logistic burdens. Locally-embedded distributed manufacturing can be seen more like a service —with manufacturing becoming an embedded component of community activity that is integrated at more points than just the end product.

In the Handibot scenario, we look forward to growing production to levels that allow distributed manufacturing that supports new sites for production of Handibots in communities where they will be used. One can envision local, enterprising individuals or groups in small manufacturing facilities who make the parts and assemble the tools, who re-manufacture and upgrade old tools, and who also provide support and training to new users while contributing to the collaborative development of the product.

That’s our thinking about Handibots and our business model. The Handibots themselves are hard working and are pretty nifty. Digital fabrication creates the opportunity to continue to innovate the product and to grow it production in small steps. With such bootstrapping, we basically test the business viability at each level of scaling as we go along. But whether this experiment in digital fab of the new industrial revolution will work; whether it will support us; whether the tools will be widely adopted; and whether production will spread in a distributed manner is still an open question. Importantly, whether the less capital-intense method of small-shop, digital fab can support a business model where generated-value stays within a community and where benefits of product development more rationally accrue to those who do the work along with those who purchase of the product. To find out, please check back!

And as a sidebar concept that I’m fond of ... I’m sure you’ve noticed that Handibot is also very meta. It is made with digital fabrication — yet it itself is a tool for digital fabrication. It is produced with what is also intends to do. And, naturally, it can produce most of its own parts and effectively upgrade itself in the field. Just saying …

Summary: Our Handibot Smart Tool (a small, portable CNC that works down through its base into your project) was developed to be manufactured using digital fabrication . The product is digitally modeled using complexly machined components that employ “digital-fab joinery” for their structure and interlocking assembly. In medium volumes, digital fabrication of a product like Handibot can be cost-competitive with injection molding. This type of manufacturing allows continuous product evolution and as well as making possible forms of distributed manufacturing.

Suggested reads: Along with digital fabrication, open-source practices and open innovation of hardware will be keys to the competitiveness of small manufacturing. Alicia Gibb, along with others from the Open Source Hardware Association, have produced, “Building Open Source Hardware”. This book summarizes many of the concepts and design principles for “open” product development. It considers business aspects of open hardware and provides nice checklists for design and manufacturing. There is also a useful chapter on going from making to manufacturing by Matt Bolton, who helped do it at Sparkfun, another of the examples of how the new industrial revolution can actually bring some good jobs to our communities.

The evolution of Handibot was particularly influenced by the students in Neil Gershenfeld’s “Machines that Make” course at MIT. This class emphasizes digital fab tools bootstrapping the next generation of digital fab tools … and of course, that’s what we’re up to with Handibot. Some really creative and inspiring small digital tools have been designed by the group in Neil’s lab and Neil’s classes (you may find Neils book on digital fab, previously noted, of interest); in particular: Jonathan Ward’s MTM SnapBot (far left, in the “evolutionary” picture above) which, in collaboration with Saul Griffith and Mike Estee at OtherLab, developed into the OtherMill; Nadya Peek and Ilan Moyer’s Pop Fab portable-cnc-machine-in-a-suitcase; and Ilan Moyer’s, Alec Rivers’, and Fredo Durandof’s position-correcting router (now Shaper).

Ted writes about the future of small-shop manufacturing and new fabrication technologies. Ted founded ShopBotTools (digital fab equipment),Handibot(smart power tools), and with Bill Young, started the open, small-shop, fabrication match-up & resource,