Digital fabrication is a manufacturing process in which a machine is operated by a computer to make a certain product.
This page is part of an ongoing, open-ended online collaborative database, which collects relevant approaches that can be used by city-makers to tackle unsustainability and injustice in cities. It is based mainly on knowledge generated in EU-funded projects and touches on fast changing fields. As such, this page makes no claims of authoritative completeness and welcomes your suggestions.
General introduction of approach
Sometimes digital fabrication is classed by the processes used - subtractive, additive or joining  - or sometimes by the different materials used. Generally it involves technologies such as CNC milling (computer numerical control milling where shapes are cut from sheets), laser cutting (where materials are burnt or melted by a laser beam) or 3D printing (where objects are built up from layers). Sometimes referred to as ‘rapid prototyping’, it allows for one-off designs to be produced at a relatively low costs, for experimentation, and for those not usually involved in design and manufacture the possibility to create. Larger companies have also begun to use digital fabrication processes.
Shapes, sizes and applications
One of the most widely known approaches that utilizes digital fabrication are Fablabs (digital fabrication laboratories). They provide wider access to the means for digital fabrication, or invention more generally, and began as an outreach initiative at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. It has since grown into a global network. Fablabs are open to the public and provide people with access to training, tools and designs associated with digital fabrication. Typically they will have a number of flexible computer-controlled tools, and are aligned in certain respects with open-source, DIY, and maker cultures/movements. The approach has been written about in-depth by the TRANSIT project. A more explicitly urban and sustainability focussed approach is the idea of the Fab City. It is an international initiative started by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, and the above mentioned MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, Barcelona City Council and the FabFoundation. The idea is to develop self-sufficient cities, in which produce locally as part of a circular chain, whilst information on how to produce locally is spread globally. In essence, it is about scaling up the FabLab approach to a city and adopting an explicitly sustainable approach.
Relation to UrbanA themes: Urban, sustainability, and justice
Digital fabrication can take place wherever the tools (and expertise) are available. However, Fab Labs are almost exclusively located in cities, due to the concentration of interest and capital. The Fab City idea, is clearly urban in focus. Indeed, if the availability of digital fabrication tools grows, then it is possible to imagine how it might instigate a return of (certain types of) manufacturing to cities in Europe as urban areas move towards self-sufficiency. Localised production is clearly beneficial to the environment due to reduced transportation, whilst production on demand reduces waste. However, there appear to be no in built justice mechanisms within such approaches. It depends upon what local groups choose to do within the wider ‘movement’ (if it can be classed as a movement).
Narrative of change
Digital fabrication is a disruptive technology-enabled innovation that re-aligns supply chains, turns consumers into producers and thus has the potential to democratise production and consumption. It is a digital technological innovation that is localised, yet linked to global networks. As such, it is possible to learn from global flows of knowledge and innovation, whilst rooting production and creation in local needs and desires. It can shorten supply chains, open up production and lead to new and unforeseen creations. It is rooted in open design, and allows for adaptability to local desires and needs. Furthermore, FabLabs can help link together local communities and neighbours, enabling co-creation, the opening up of tech (beyond circles of 'geeks').
Though it might seem like an obvious point to make, the transformative potential of digital fabrication depends very much on the purposes for which it is used. For instance, people might print guns on 3D printers to form militias and stop poor people entering the city once the climate apocalypse has destroyed most of the world. Moreover, FabLabs might be used for personal transformation projects (e.g. budding entrepreneurs) rather than socially transformative projects. Digital fabrication could be used for decentralised democratised production, or increasingly individualised, neoliberal endeavours.
The transformational potential for FabLabs include:
- the potential connection to other activities - vegetable gardens, coops
- the allowing for experiments
- the learning of new skills and tools
- a scaling out rather than a scaling up
- being the basis for a citizen-led model such as a Fab City
However for such transformation to be realised, we must be aware of challenges including:
- the need to document everything
- need to share innovation
- That the prevalent current knowledge system is often closed and propriety (thus digital fabrication's openness might get subsumed)
- school systems don’t encourage peer learning
As such we must be aware of very real concerns including:
- that DIY culture can be individual and consumerist at times
- Digital fabrication innovations could be captured by venture capitalists
- That the tech is still expensive to set up and so tied/chained to contributors
Illustrations of approaches
As mentioned above, assessing the use of digital fabrication depends very much upon the context in which it was embedded. For instance, as detailed in the TRANSIT project, FabLab Amersfoort is an illustrative example of how digital fabrication tools can be tied into locally sustainable and socially just initiatives,
“At FabLab Amersfoort, and particularly in the projects of De War, the emphasis is in using the tools of the Lab for the purposes of social change. The facilities are used to make objects such as monitoring systems and beehives. But really it is the organisation of these activities, and how they connect to bigger ideas and community building that is important. De War at FabLab Amersfoort is seeking to put into practice ideas about open design, peer--‐to--‐peer production, and local sustainability. They want to expand the old factory site, including the FabLab, into a hub for local social change networks, and that they are involved in and helping to build. So for FabLab Amersfoort, the way they are trying to insert the innovative possibilities of FabLabs into Transition Town activities and in other directions of change they seek (such as citizen science, and an open, collaborative and sustainable society generally) is by embedding the Lab into networks of local activity that are working in similar directions. Transformation rests in the new relationships built through these networking activities..
- Smith, A., Hielscher, S. and Fressoli, M. (2015) Transformative social innovation narrative : Fablabs. TRANSIT: EU SHH.2013.3.2-1 Grant agreement no: 613169