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Digital fabrication and distributed production

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Recently, two new trends entered the DIY/Self-production world, both related to digital fabrication and thus to the Fablabs, leading to disruptive changes in the DIY scenario.

FabLabs are open laboratories1 whose aim is to ease the access to rapid/digital prototyping tools, such as lasercutters, 3D printers, CNC mills. Usually, they’re characterized by a strong educational intent and they’re prone to collaboration and sharing as they apply open source thinking.

In Italy they’re spreading all around the nation2: there are opening FabLabs each month, and they’re not always limited to big cities. However, it’s not possible to talk only about Fablabs, as there are other kind of “making” labs too with different grades of “openness”. We’re talking about makerspaces, tools libraries and rapid prototyping services.

Let’s introduce here the concept of distributed production (or distributed manufacturing) as a form of DIY/Self-production.

Since digital fabrication tools are available on most of the territory, people started to collect their projects in online open repositories, allowing others to download the projects and then “make” them locally at their reference FabLab or makerspace.

This behaviour has a huge impact on environment, reducing environmental footprint. It limits transports and production volumes, while shortening the distribution chain, that in the future will be all about raw material and spare parts (plastic pellet, filaments, electronic components…). Moreover, digital fabrication enables last-minute customization of the object, thanks to parametric design tecniques: it’s enough to change few parameters just before printing, and we’ll have our personal, unique product.

However, this is still a niche market close to gadgets and merchandise, and the currect performance of 3D printers is only one or the reasons. There will always be someone who just wants to go straight at the shop (physical or virtual), and “buy” something in the traditional meaning of the term. This “someone” now represent the majority.

Anyway it’s possible to outline several future scenarios. For example, tomorrow we could find locally made products in common shops, under a local brand: these new products will be close to big brand’s ones in supermarkets, tech shops, furniture shops and so on, showing their peculiar characteristics, far from the mass market and from the standardization of the big brands. We could find that product in Turin, under the brand Made in Barca maybe, while there will be another one, slighlty different, just moving to Paris, based on the same source code, but made by another local brand3, or under a shared/distributed brand. An example of this phenomenon is the distributed brand Serpica Naro.

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In other words, we can say that the production system – and the society with it – is facing the same changes that communication science¬†experienced in the 60s: the shift from centralized networks (in our case: development models) through decentralized ones, arriving at today’s distributed networks, intended as high resilience systems able to adapt/reconstruct themselves in a short time after turbolent events.

1 For a complete definition of FabLab, click here.

2 For a (near) complete list of Italian FabLabs, click here.

3 This doed not exclude online shops, as it’s already simplified thanks to online platforms such as Etsy, Ebay and so on

4 Paul Baran, On distributed communication networks, IEEE, 1964