This post has been inspired by Neil Gershenfeld's post at Edge. It's about digital fabrication.
I've been responsible for factory automation software in Austria's largest industry enterprise. Then I worked about a year for the City of Linz, helping to establish an authority…serving companies…
At that time I had the idea of building a "walk in center for discrete manufacturing". A lab at industrial scale, with a manufacturing center for complete operations of multi-axes milling and lathing in one set up, sheet metal cutting and forming machines...all supported by CAD/CAM…it was a kind of fab lab idea…inviting manufacturers to learn by fabricating of their most complicated partsn at brand-new manufacturing systems. It was 1988…too early…the equipment was (too) expensive for a lab type of work.
The fab lab is a USD 100.000 investment…there's 400 now world-wide…and the number is growing fast.
Digital communication is about sending signals as symbols not as waves. It's much more failure tolerant - you can communicate reliably, even though the communication medium is unreliable.
Digital computing is about storing and manipulating symbols. Again it can compute reliably with an unreliable computing device.
The property that enables this kind of failure tolerance: a linear increase in the symbol gives you an exponential reduction in failure.
Is digital fabrication the integration of computers and machines? It's not. The design may be digital but the machines works analog…they cut, form, remove, polish…material. In most cases, there's no such thing as a digital material built of "symbols" and building blocks. If there were one, we could decompose and recompose it.
But the real geometry is external...it's result of a machine model. And with the complexity of the part the probability of failures increase. You can't make reliable parts on unreliable machines. If we had building blocks the accuracy come from them and failures could be reduced at the building phase…
Usual fabrication is not like biological fabrication…but we could think of digitizing fabrication and coding construction. Make things of much smaller building blocks…assembling them instead of cutting, forming, removing…
It may be easier when making complex chemicals, electronic devices…but build molecular assembles for metal parts of arbitrary shape and size? Composite materials are usually "hand crafted" to parts.
However, symbolic computation helps designing a fabrication the bottom up fashion and discretization to solve a wider range of principle problems…although often just serving as constraints of the external system (the geometry, mechanisms…).
I've conducted exciting projects for the manufacturing industries and the latest technologies help to make manufacturing systems more autonomous, make more operational steps in one set up…but, I agree, we haven't achieved the age of digital fabrication.