"manufacturing" entries

Podcast: the democratization of manufacturing

A conversation with Chris Anderson, Nick Pinkston, and Jie Qi

Manufacturing is hard, but it’s getting easier. In every stage of the manufacturing process–prototyping, small runs, large runs, marketing, fulfillment–cheap tools and service models have become available, dramatically decreasing the amount of capital required to start building something and the expense of revising and improving a product once it’s in production.

In this episode of the Radar podcast, we speak with Chris Anderson, CEO and co-founder of 3D Robotics; Nick Pinkston, a manufacturing expert who’s working to make building things easy for anyone; and Jie Qi, a student at the MIT Media Lab whose recent research has focused on the factories of Shenzhen.

Along the way we talk about the differences between Tesla’s auto plant and its previous incarnation as the NUMMI plant; the differences between on-shoring, re-shoring and near-shoring; and how the innovative energy of Kickstarter and the Maker movement can be brought to underprivileged populations.

Many of these topics will come up at Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference about the intersection of software and the physical world. Solid’s call for proposals open through December 9. We’re planning a series of Solid meet-ups, plant tours, and books about the collision of real and virtual; if you’ve got an idea for something the series should explore, please reach out!

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Software, hardware, everywhere

Software and hardware are moving together, and the combined result is a new medium.

An updated version of this essay was published in December 2014.

Real and virtual are crashing together. On one side is hardware that acts like software: IP-addressable, controllable with JavaScript APIs, able to be stitched into loosely-coupled systems—the mashups of a new era. On the other is software that’s newly capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world—ingesting huge amounts of data, learning from it, and making decisions in real time.

The result is an entirely new medium that’s just beginning to emerge. We can see it in Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels, which use drones to render a three-dimensional pixel field; in Baxter, which layers emotive software onto an industrial robot so that anyone can operate it safely and efficiently; in OpenXC, which gives even hobbyist-level programmers access to the software in their cars; in SmartThings, which ties Web services to light switches.

The new medium is something broader than terms like “Internet of Things,” “Industrial Internet,” or “connected devices” suggest. It’s an entirely new discipline that’s being built by software developers, roboticists, manufacturers, hardware engineers, artists, and designers. Read more…

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$20,000 and a trip to Shenzhen

An incubator that leads to an accelerator that leads to China's high-volume manufacturers.

Manufacturing is rapidly becoming more accessible to people whose expertise lies elsewhere. The change is most apparent at the small scale, where it’s become easy to order prototypes made on high-quality 3D printers and electronics in small batches from domestic factories. High-volume Chinese manufacturing has been tougher to get into.

A new incubator launching today, and led by our former O’Reilly colleague Brady Forrest, is aimed at lowering the barriers to getting physical goods manufactured fast and in high volumes. Highway1 will prepare nascent hardware companies to enter the accelerator pipeline of the Sino-Irish supply-chain giant PCH International. It offers portfolio companies up to $20,000 and a hardware crash-course that includes a trip to the factories of Shenzhen. Forrest says his curriculum will eventually be made public (minus the China junket, of course).

The successful companies that progress to PCH’s accelerator will have PCH as both an investor and supply-chain manager, essentially drawing from the same network that supplies some of Silicon Valley’s bestsellers.

Forrest put it to me this way: “There is no Amazon Web Services for hardware, but we’re the closest thing to it.”

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Radar podcast: the Internet of Things, PRISM, and defense technology that goes civilian

A strange ad from a defense contractor leads us to talk about technology transfer, and Edward Snowden chooses an unnecessarily inflammatory refuge.

On this week’s podcast, Jim Stogdill, Roger Magoulas and I talk about things that have been on our minds lately: the NSA’s surveillance programs, what defense contractors will do with their technology as defense budgets dry up, and a Californian who isn’t doing what you think he’s doing with hydroponics.

The odd ad in The Economist that caught Jon's attention, from Dassault Systemes.

The odd ad in The Economist that caught Jon’s attention, from Dassault Systemes. Does this suggest that contractors, contemplating years of American and European austerity, are looking for ways to market defense technologies to the civilian world?

Because we’re friendly Web stewards, we provide links to the more obscure things that we talk about in our podcasts. Here they are.

If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe on iTunes, on SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast RSS feed.

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Where will software and hardware meet?

Software is adding more and more value to machines. Could it completely commoditize them?

I’m a sucker for a good plant tour, and I had a really good one last week when Jim Stogdill and I visited K. Venkatesh Prasad at Ford Motor in Dearborn, Mich. I gave a seminar and we talked at length about Ford’s OpenXC program and its approach to building software platforms.

The highlight of the visit was seeing the scale of Ford’s operation, and particularly the scale of its research and development organization. Prasad’s building is a half-mile into Ford’s vast research and engineering campus. It’s an endless grid of wet labs like you’d see at a university: test tubes and robots all over the place; separate labs for adhesives, textiles, vibration dampening; machines for evaluating what’s in reach for different-sized people.

Prasad explained that much of the R&D that goes into a car is conducted at suppliers–Ford might ask its steel supplier to come up with a lighter, stronger alloy, for instance–but Ford is responsible for integrative research: figuring out how to, say, bond its foam insulation onto that new alloy.

In our more fevered moments, we on the software side of things tend to foresee every problem being reduced to a generic software problem, solvable with brute-force computing and standard machinery. In that interpretation, a theoretical Google car operating system–one that would drive the car and provide Web-based services to passengers–could commoditize the mechanical aspects of the automobile. Read more…

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Investigating the growth and influence of professional Makers

We're exploring the Maker movement's role in manufacturing, business and the economy.

The growth of the Maker movement has been nothing if not amazing. We’ve had more than 100,000 people at Maker Faire in San Francisco, and more than 50,000 at the New York event, with mini-Maker Faires in many other cities. Arduino is almost a household word, along with Raspberry Pi. Now that O’Reilly has spun out Maker Media as an independent company, we look forward to the continued success of these events; they’re signs of an important cultural shift, a rejection of a prefabricated, shrink-and bubble-wrap economy that hasn’t served us well. The Make movement has proven that there are many people who want the joy of creating, whether it’s a crystal radio, a custom head for a Pez dispenser, or glowing e coli.

But the Maker movement is not just about hobbyists. We’ve seen a lot in print about the re-shoring of American manufacturing, the return of the manufacturing jobs that had been exported to China and the Far East over the past few decades. One of the questions we’re asking at O’Reilly is what the Maker movement has to do with the return of manufacturing. If the return of manufacturing just means lots of low-level industrial jobs, paying barely more than minimum wage and under near-slavery conditions, that doesn’t sound desirable. That also doesn’t sound possible, at least to me: whatever else one might say about the cost of doing business in the U.S., North America just doesn’t have the sheer concentrations of people needed to make a Foxconn.

Of course, many of the writers who’ve noted the return of manufacturing have also noted that it’s returning in a highly automated way: instead of people running around a warehouse, you’ll have Kiva robots doing the running. Instead of skilled machinists operating milling machines, you’ll have highly automated computer controlled machines with a small number of humans to test the parts and make sure they’re operating properly. This vision is more plausible — even likely — but while it promises continued employment for the engineers who make the robots, it certainly doesn’t solve any problems in the labor market.

But just as small business has long been the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, one wonders whether or not small manufacturing, driven by “professional Makers,” could be the foundation for the resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S. Read more…

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Listening for tired machinery

Cheap sensors and sophisticated software keep expensive machines running smoothly

Software is making its way into places where it hasn’t usually been before, like the cutting surfaces of very fast, ultra-precise machine tools.

A high-speed milling machine can run at 42,000 RPM as it fabricates high-quality machine components within tolerances of a few microns. Excessive wear in that environment can lead to a failure that ruins an expensive part, but it’s difficult to use physical means to detect wear on cutting surfaces: human operators can’t see it and detailed microscopic inspections are costly. The result is that many operators simply replace parts on a pre-determined schedule — every two months, perhaps — that ends up being overly conservative.

The researchers’ milling machine, shown with sensors near the cutting device. (Source: X. Li, M.J. Er, H. Ge, O. P. Gan, S. Huang, L.Y. Zhai, S. Linn, Amin J. Torabi, “Adaptive Network Fuzzy Inference System and Support Vector Machine Learning for Tool Wear Estimation in High Speed Milling Processes,” Proceedings of the 38th Annual Conference of the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society, pp. 2809-2814, 2012.)

Enter software: in a paper delivered to the IEEE’s Industrial Electronics Society in Montreal last Thursday*, a group of researchers from Singapore propose a way to use low-cost sensors along with machine learning algorithms to accurately predict wear on machine parts — a technique that could cut costs for manufacturers by lengthening the lifespan of machine parts while avoiding failures.

The group’s demonstration is a promising illustration of the industrial Internet, which promises to bring more intelligence to machines by linking them to networks and integrating them with sophisticated software. Techniques from areas like machine learning, which can be computationally intensive, can thus be available in monitoring parts as small and common as cutting surfaces in milling machines.

Read more…

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Investigating the industrial Internet

We're working with GE to explore the coming internet of very big things.

Consumer networks have revolutionized the way companies understand and reach their customers, making possible intricate measurement and accurate prediction at every step of every transaction. The same revolution is underway in our infrastructure, where new generations of sensor-laden power plants, cars and medical devices will generate vast quantities of data that could bring about improvements in quality, reliability and cost. Big machines will enter the modern era of big data, where they’ll be subject to constant analysis and optimization.

We’ve teamed up with General Electric to explore the industrial Internet and convene a series of conversations that we hope will accelerate its development. GE’s strong presence in many industries has given it a great deal of insight into the ways that industrial data might be gathered, distributed and linked together.

Linking together big smart devices into a true industrial Internet presents enormous challenges: standards need to be developed with the full engagement of the technology industry. Software innovators will need to develop tools that can handle vast quantities of sensor data under tight security constraints, sharing information that can improve the performance of systems that have many operators — without leaking anything important to malicious groups.

Launching the industrial Internet will require big investment on the part of those who will operate each of its nodes, so in addition to looking at the concept’s technical aspects we’ll also explore its promise as a business revolution in ways that are both practical and already in use (like remote operation of mining equipment) and promising but largely conceptual (like mobile health and big data in diagnostics).

GE won’t be the only voice in this conversation: other companies have developed their own visions for the industrial Internet and we’ll be exploring those as well, looking for commonalities and engaging as many voices as we can from our neutral place in the technology industry.

The promise of the industrial Internet is that it will bring intelligence to industries that are hugely capital-intensive and create broad value that all of the industrial Internet’s participants will share. We’ll look for stories that illustrate that future.

Comments: 2
Four short links: 20 September 2012

Four short links: 20 September 2012

Distributing Content, Effective Project Dictatorship, Ubiquitous Hardware, Wheelcasts

  1. The Shape of the Internet Has Changed98 percent of internet traffic now consists of content that can be stored on servers. 45% of Internet traffic today is from CDNs, and a handful of them at that, which makes CDNs like Artur Bergman’s fastly super-important. (via Donald Clark)
  2. Be a Good Dictator (Rowan Simpson) — There is no shortage of advice online about how to be a good designer or a good software developer. But what about advice for those who aspire to be good product dictators? Guidance seems pretty thin on the ground. […] Being a deep expert in just one area is not enough for good dictators. You need to be a polymath living at an intersection.
  3. Hardware is Dead7-inch tablet, Wi-Fi only with all the attributes of a good tablet. Capacitive touchscreen. Snappy processor. Front facing camera. 4GB of internal memory and an expandable memory slot. for USD75. At these levels there is almost no profit margin left in the hardware business. A $45 tablet is cheap enough to be an impulse purchase at the check-out line in Best Buy. A $45 price puts tablets within reach of a whole host of other activities not traditionally associated with computers. (via Steve Bowbrick)
  4. Car Transmissions and Syncromesh (YouTube) — cheesy old Chevy educational movie that does a great job of explaining how manual transmissions work. Such videos were the screencasts for the auto DIY folks. (via Nat Friedman)
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Four short links: 24 July 2012

Four short links: 24 July 2012

Big Data, Science Revealed, Web Security, and Everything's Getting Worse

  1. The Future of Big Data (Pew Internet) — A doubtful anonymous respondent observed, “Apparently this ‘Internet of Things’ idea is beginning to encourage yet another round of cow-eyed Utopian thinking. Big Data will yield some successes and a lot of failures, and most people will continue merely to muddle along, hoping not to be mugged too frequently by the well-intentioned (or not) entrepreneurs and bureaucrats who delight in trying to use this shiny new toy to fix the world.” Always easier to be negative than positive: if you’re wrong, nobody cares because the world is better; but if you’re right, you get to say “I told you so” as the world slides into chaos and ruin. Reminded of a politician in NZ who was said to have “predicted 8 of the last 4 recessions”. (via Jim Stogdill)
  2. Science in a Nutshell (Guardian) — it’s a book review, but Adam Rutherford nails the heart of science in just a few short paragraphs. (And I bought one of the books he was reviewing)
  3. Living with HTTPS — short rundown of the security considerations around HTTPS transported web pages.
  4. False Economy — it’s a political blog, but the interesting part is the table showing railway carriage mean-time-between-failures numbers for carriages bought in 1971, 1972, 1979, 1986, and 2011. Monotonically decreasing. In so many ways, they don’t make them like they used to.
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