I love dictionaries. I like to sit and read them, immersed in the words that make up our own stories. That is how I first came across the original meaning of the word “manufacture.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, in its primary, 17th-century, definition of the word, defines it as “the action or process of making by hand.” Another definition from the 17th century reads: “Working with the hands; a manual occupation, handicraft.”
These original meanings are mainly obsolete. Since the industrial revolution, we have associated the word “manufacture” with large-scale, centralized, machine-driven making of materials and goods. In the near future, however, every one of us will have the ability to make things at home, to manufacture things again—with our hands, using mechanical power and intellectual power in new ways. Printing in 3-D is going to take manufacturing back to its roots.
I was mesmerized when I saw my first 3-D printer in action back in the 1990s. The machining processes of traditional manufacturing were subtractive—paring, chiseling, grinding and filing—but 3-D printing is additive, building layer on layer. When I came across a method, based on 3-D printing, of correcting infant cleft palate, it took my breath away. Conventional surgery is invasive and painful to the point of barbarism, but the new technique promises a way for every child to soon have the right to smile.
Applications for 3-D printing have proliferated. They include the construction of “missing” pieces in jigsaw puzzles, screws and skull fragments; manufacture of body parts (initially bones and joints but recently body organs); production of new materials and chemicals; and manufacture of containers of various sizes, even entire buildings.
Soon manufacturing will start resembling the world of cooking. You can use raw ingredients, although that requires a high level of expertise. You can have someone else prepare the ingredients for you in advance or integrate the ingredients into prepared dishes or even for entire meals. Start to finish, the process can be done according to different levels of time, cost and quality. The specifications—the “recipes”—are where the real intellectual value is created. What can be combined and how, reliably, repeatably and safely? What alternatives and substitutions are possible? What can be modified for each instance?
If the creative process in manufacturing were all about recipes, what would the world look like? The new creators will be those who have access to the laboratories where they can safely experiment with different ways of manufacturing and verify the results before they are disseminated. Such facilities will have to cover a host of specialist experts, substance by substance, material by material, with the necessary knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, electronics, design, social anthropology, law—the works. And they will have the tools and machines needed to experiment, iterate, learn, fix and reiterate until they attain the right levels of reliability, safety and affordability.
To invent this kind of process, we can draw on the experience of the film industry.
Instead of the lab, we have a studio. Instead of creative geniuses, we have stars. Instead of a variety of specialists, we have a production crew. Instead of a director and a producer to bring all these parts together, we have the people who lead the creative process and the financial investment.
The film industry knows about iteration. It knows about different genres of production. It knows about certification before public release. It knows about scripts, recipes—specifications.
The Hollywood we know wrote and directed the scripts of things we would then watch in large cinemas and later on in the comfort of our homes. There is a new Hollywood coming, where people write and publish the scripts for making things, which we as individuals and as collectives will follow. All of us will be able to bring back the original meaning of “manufacture,” as we make things that feed us, keep us healthy, repair us and entertain us.