Last week I saw a demo of D.I.Wire’s computer-controlled wire-bending machine. It’s a neat tool that bends sturdy wire into shapes defined by computer line drawings -- like a 3d printer for one-dimensional shapes. One interesting thing about it is that, just like 3D printers, wire-bending machines have existed as big industrial tools for many years. 3D printers are getting so much attention now because new desktop versions are small enough and cheap enough that hobbyists and small businesses can use them. But, as the D.I.Wire shows, this trend is not limited to 3D printers.
In fact, for less than the price of a macbook pro, you can buy a small lathe or milling machine, the workhorse machines of industrial production. For less than $7,000 you can even get an injection molding machine, a laser cutter, or an induction melting furnace. Some commentators see these small-scale production tools as a challenge to traditional mass production. But I think that they are more accurately seen as a testament to the success of mass production. Large-scale, global mass production is so efficient that even complicated, niche products like milling machines are now affordable to a middle-class American household.
All of the machines I mentioned so far are commercial products. Hobbyist and open-source hardware projects are using even more complicated and exotic industrial processes at the household scale. Take, for example, these instructions for turning a microwave oven into a smelting machine for melting and forming metal, or this youtube video documenting an attempt at a homemade vacuum evaporation coating machine, or this open-source tractor. There are even DIY versions of hazardous chemical engineering processes like refining biocrude oil and synthesizing Nylon.
Other people (notably Chris Anderson) have written about how digital production tools are making hardware much easier and less expensive to design and build. But it is still remarkable to see this trend play out over such a broad range of tools and processes.