The Personal Factory Is Here—and It Will Bring a Wild New Era of Invention


Visit Singularity Hub for the latest from the frontiers of manufacturing and technology as we bring you coverage of Singularity University’s Exponential Manufacturing summit.

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Danielle Applestone moderating a panel at Exponential Manufacturing in Boston.

The software startup launching out of a garage or a dorm room is now the stuff of legend. We can all name the stories of people who got together in a garage with a few computers and ended up disrupting massive, established corporations — or creating something the world never even knew it wanted.

Until now, this hasn’t really been as true for physical things you build from the ground up. The cost of tools and production has been too high, and for top quality, you still had to go at it the traditional manufacturing route.

According to Danielle Applestone, CEO of Other Machine Co., that’s no longer the case per her address at the Exponential Manufacturing conference.

The reduced cost of personal manufacturing tools is enabling makers to develop hardware faster than established companies and deliver that hardware directly into the hands of customers even faster.

“Just like we saw with software where people got access to new tools, [they] could build websites without asking for permission, and the world kind of got Zuckerberged by people who came out of nowhere and built these big businesses. The same exact thing is going to happen to hardware, and it’s going to happen with these tools because they’re good enough so they can produce something where you can’t tell the difference, whether it was built by a large company or in somebody’s garage.”  – Danielle Applestone

And the same goes for research — with these readily available tools, individuals or small teams of researchers can run experiments costing pennies on the dollar compared to more traditional methods.

Today, you can set up your own garage hardware lab with these manufacturing tools:

  • Desktop CNC mill
    Guided by a computer and used for cutting pieces in various materials like aluminum and plastic — able to cut to 25-micron accuracy.
  • Hi-res 3D Printer
    Able to print with resin, these printers can get you resolution that you need to do medical research, make dental crowns and bridges and also jewelry.
  • Lower-res 3D Printer
    Prints with plastic filament, works well enough if you want to create a prototype print quickly.
  • Laser Cutter
    If you are doing 2D cutting and have a craft business or you want to prototype packaging or you want to prototype in wood or things that are typically hard to have manufactured for you, you also need a laser cutter.
  • Router
    Used for cutting large pieces of wood or metal.

“It used to be that you had to go to a factory to build high precision metal things in whatever material — this is no longer true. You can do whatever you want yourself without interfacing with the factory. We can also build electronics in our garages. We can use the most cutting-edge chip sets, shipped directly to us through Alibaba or DigiKey right to our house, build products, put our firmware on them and deliver them to customers without ever having to ask permission.” – Danielle Applestone

There’s no reason that these machines can’t exist in every maker’s home — and when people have access to these tools, there’s no telling what new businesses and services they’ll create.

Sure, having a home fabrication lab isn’t going to be for everyone. But for those who put in the time and effort to learn the tools, there are some surprising rewards to be found. Take this story for example:

Applestone’s neighbor is working on drug research for psoriasis. His experiment used to cost him $3,000.  That’s until he teamed up with Applestone to build an aluminum micro-array in her garage (“over beers”) which contains 900 test tubes — each of which is a 125-nanoliter deep well in the metal — in a square centimeter. They then used a CNC machine to deposit RNA strands and individual cells into the micro array — effectively reducing the cost of the experiment by ten thousand fold.

How’s that for innovation? 

Image credit: Singularity University and Shutterstock