Back in the 90s the web was something new. A lot of people thought it wouldn’t amount to much, but others predicted it would tear up the rulebook, changing the boundaries for business, industry, government and the community. And it did. Online shopping went from “speculative” to “new” to “everyday” to “your granny’s doing it”. […]

Back in the 90s the web was something new. A lot of people thought it wouldn’t amount to much, but others predicted it would tear up the rulebook, changing the boundaries for business, industry, government and the community. And it did.

Online shopping went from “speculative” to “new” to “everyday” to “your granny’s doing it”. Just about every business got themselves a website and government services went “digital by default”. Businesses went bankrupt and others sprung up. Fortunes were lost and made. Remember Virgin Megastore? Remember Zavvi? Remember local newspapers?

The web was disruptive technology. Disruptive technology seems to come out of nowhere and very quickly turns everything upside down. Some people ignore it. Some people get angry, or scared, or greedy. Some businesses benefit; some have to change out of all recognition.

This sort of technology is worrying if you’re safely in work, labouring away with a limited skill set and limited options. But if you’ve got a taste for adventure, or if you’re outside the charmed circle of secure employment and regular income, then that disruption could give you a chance. It’s not just about individuals. Sheffield has been in a tough economic corner for a couple of decades now, and the city needs a game changer.

When Access Space opened in 2000, we were able to say to people, “Why don’t you come and learn about web design? Grab a couple of books, read up on HTML, and in a few months you can build yourself a professional level career with virtually no capital investment.” The web’s disruptive potential made that proposition a possibility. Some people grabbed the opportunity with both hands, created their own jobs and went on to new futures.

The trouble is that it’s not really true anymore. It’s not the web skills that’ll make the difference – it’s the other skills and talents that you sell via the web that’ll really count. On its own the web doesn’t offer the wild card opportunity it once did, because it has become the norm. Business, industry and government know how it works now. The digital frontier has been stitched up. The same thing is happening with YouTube as we watch. I’m not saying you can’t make a million from digital opportunities, but your chances are slimmer, and your potential wins aren’t so open-ended, the way they used to be.

Getting everyone familiar with the digital basics, while a worthwhile objective, just isn’t enough anymore. Now the opportunities for established technologies like the web and e-commerce are becoming more predictable, more under control. We need to look at emerging disruptive technologies for the sorts of opportunities that may have unpredictable, open-ended results.

At Access Space we’re looking at physical computing and advanced manufacturing; a digital fabrication laboratory, or fablab, where people can get involved with digital manufacturing, electronics, robotics, remote control systems, sensors, embedded intelligence and more. We believe that it’s this area – where the digital and physical worlds meet – that will bring about the next wave of disruptive innovation.

We’re thinking about laser cutters. You draw a shape on the computer and it cuts that shape out of plywood or perspex super accurately. We’re looking into computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines like mills and cutters. You define a 3D shape and it grinds it out of a small block of plastic or aluminium. We’ve just ordered a CNC router, big enough to cut thick sheets of wood, so we can make furniture-sized objects. We’ve built an electronics workbench, acquired a whole bunch of tools, and started looking into even more radical technologies, like 3D printers.

Isn’t this a million miles away from our initial idea of a trash technology lab? Not at all. The costs of these technologies have plummeted in the last few years. Now we’re able to build a fablab that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates costs around £100,000 for a fifth of that, and the prices are still coming down. Our laser cutter cost a third of the price of MIT’s US-made laser. It’s bigger, more powerful, and (of course) made in Yorkshire.

You can buy a programmable mini-robot brain (Arduino) for 12 quid, or a barebones multimedia computer the size of a playing card (Raspberry Pi) for 35 quid. Computer-controlled manufacturing machines like laser cutters and CNC machines that used to cost £20,000 now cost a few thousand pounds. What we’re setting up is the 21st century equivalent of a community print shop – a suite of computer-controlled tools that can make just about anything.

MIT invented the idea of the media lab back in the mid 90s. They said the future of information technology was going to be around multimedia – video, audio, images and websites. While the rest of the world was getting excited about email, spreadsheets and word processing, they predicted the YouTube revolution, so we reckon their predictions are worth listening to.

Think what happened to the office. Thirty years ago, “office” meant a big building in town, where people shuffled paperwork. Now it means a function on your laptop, on your phone, or “in the cloud”. Office work hasn’t gone away, but it has changed profoundly. It has fragmented, disintegrated and permeated everyday life. Now everyone is their own secretary.

In the same way, fablab technologies are going to fragment and disintegrate manufacturing. Ten years from now you might buy a shirt or a washing machine made in your neighbourhood, not in China, and 30 years from now you could be downloading the designs and making these things in your own home.

If you had a whole suite of machines that could make just about anything, what would be the best thing to make? How about a whole suite of machines that could make just about anything? That’ll be when manufacturing capability goes truly viral.

And it’s happening already. RepRap is a desktop 3D printer. It’s like a computer-controlled hot glue gun. You define a 3D object on the computer, and it prints it layer by layer as a 3D object in thermoplastic. It can make around 65% of its own components, so once you’ve got one, your next one is cheaper. The thermoplastic is made from potato starch, so in the end you may be able to grow your own feedstock.

This is not science fiction; it’s real, and you can buy a kit to build one for less than £400. It can’t make all of itself, but each improved version is increasing the machine’s reproducibility. A whole suite of machines, operating on different materials and at different scales, from the microscopic to the architectural, is getting close to being able to reproduce itself.

These opportunities should be available to everyone, so we’ve taken the bull by the horns and set up Refab Space, a community fablab at Access Space. With a network of partners, we’re using it to support start-up enterprises across the city. But unlike the usual enterprise advisors, we don’t talk about cashflow projections, speculative share issues and fictional business plans. Instead we’re helping enterprising people to design and make prototypes so they can make and sell real products.

The requirement to learn is one of the things we really like about the DIY approach to technology. It gives opportunities to people who are at a loose end, and it’s one of Access Space’s watchwords: pay with money, end up poorer – pay with time, end up smarter. Doesn’t that sound like an “IT investment strategy” that makes sense for the city?

access-space.org

James Wallbank.