Streets of Shenzhen 2015: A revolution is brewing in the factories. Not an ideological or social revolution, but a revolution in manufacturing.
While walking through manufacturing districts of Shenzhen we witness a dazzling array of high technology. A constant thrum echoes about the city, people moving, ideas flowing, products being created.
The next revolution will forge diverse, intelligent products, a new class of unique computing we cannot begin to imagine.
Factory buildings throw the landscape in disorder, electric cords dangle over the city on telephone poles. The cityscape in and around the Pearl River Delta (home to Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong), is now classified as the world’s largest “Megacity”. Over 15,000 sq mi metropolitan area is home to some of the largest, most advanced manufacturing facilities on Earth.
It’s where ideas can be prototyped overnight, then scaled to full production in days. The cost of manufacturing in China is so low, that mass-producing technology anywhere else is difficult to justify. It’s where I believe we will see the next great shift in computing.
ARA is not a smartphone. ARA is an adaptable supercomputer that can be built into anything
China is where our computers are assembled, where the chips are made, where rare earth materials in those chips come from.
The ideas and visions of the entire world are part of this manufacturing revolution, now amplified in the prototype labs and factories of Shenzhen. A new kind of manufacturing is in its infancy, and it’s going to revolutionize the world around us.
Traditionally, products are manufactured in a subtractive process. That “aluminium unibody” of an iMac computer is “cut” or subtracted from an aluminum block. The same aluminum cutting technique is used to make plastic molds.
This new Manufacturing Revolution is saying: “What if we do the opposite?”
Additive manufacturing has been around since the 80s. Instead of removing, one adds material. Modern society has dubbed the technology “3D printing”.
I have personally used a 1980s 3D wax printer to create extremely high resolution parts. Early 3D printing is truly an art form. The time I spent around the vintage machines was guided by experts who had years of experience. They treat the machines like one kind of ferrari, knowing every part. Only these machines were more powerful than any car. They turn ideas into reality.
I would gaze into the aged machines, my face pressed to the window, watching the machine print a part that would end up in a working assembly. Additive manufacturing has been around for years, but it is only just hitting the mainstream. We are only just realizing what is possible.
Most think of “3D printing” as a prototyping tool, and that’s because additive manufacturing has always been a difficult process. Cost is a huge roadblock, the technology and materials are expensive.
In recent years equipment has become cheaper, and companies are beginning to scale up 3D printing operations. This revolution, the idea of infinite variability in a manufacturing environment will change consumer goods forever. ARA will have a key role in this revolution.
At first, as project ARA was in its infancy, modules were supposed to be 3D printed. The group developing ARA partnered with 3D Systems to print modules at scale.
At ARA Dev Con 1, I held several printed modules, and they were of impressive quality. 3D Systems prints hundreds of colors and dozens of materials at high speed, including conductive metals.
The partnership with 3D systems has since fallen through, I suspect because of high production costs (It is very difficult to compete with injection molding at the scale ARA requires).
I met with 3D Systems before the deal went through, although they were a bit discourteous when asking about their technology. They didn’t care what I had to say, but they don’t have to care. Their 3D printing technology is going to change the world.
Additive manufacturing is quickly scaling up. It is enabling ideas to become reality with the click of a mouse.
What the Android community will soon realize is that ARA is not a smartphone. ARA is an adaptable supercomputer that can be built into anything.
Keep in mind what ARA is: A series of PCB computer boards, connected by an Endoskeleton (or Endo) that networks and holds modules together as a frame.
MIT has created one of the most promising new designs. MIT’s MultiFab machine scans and prints 3D objects in multiple materials. This is where it gets interesting. One can now print a shape, then lay ARA modules in place. The machine prints a working part around prefabricated parts or modules (wires, antennas, etc).
3D printing is about to converge with modular computing at a truly astronomical scale.
This concept is almost difficult to imagine, the idea of printing a computer (electronics and all). But it’s happening right now, the technology is being scaled up in the coming months. All that is missing is a modular computer standard to give these printed forms life. What’s missing is project ARA.
ARA modules will be built all over the world, some with 3D printers, and some using equipment decades old.
Where China comes to play is their knack for adopting new technology. The Chinese are adept at scaling complex manufacturing techniques to the point where no one else can compete.
Part of their ability to move quickly is a general disregard for Intellectual property. Ideas, software and designs move freely between companies and are sold to the highest bidder.
The Additive Computing Revolution just might begin with customized ARA devices. Designers will start by modifying ARA Endoskeletons to fit a variety of forms and functions, mixing new and old components.
There will truly be “frankenphones”. While not as modular as their parents, ARA parts are used on the inside (because of their low cost, configurability, and recyclability).
Application specific Endoskeletons are printed around ARA parts (this would make it an exoskeleton). This allows for lighter, cheaper, flexible devices that don’t abide by the endo design:
In this case the designer broke all of the ARA design guidelines. The low cost of ARA parts, and access to rapid 3D printing technology, created a computer that is lighter and more durable than the average ARA.
It will take a few short years for the global ARA supply chain to become well developed. This will spur a new generation of cheap computers. By that time, rapid 3D printing will be everywhere. Frankenphones will begin to appear, and that is just the beginning.
Developers will evolve the “Endoskeleton” further, taking ARA designs to the point in which they are unrecognisable as a computer or a phone. An Endo is truly just a network between modules, and this network will quickly evolve. The revolution will then be moving full steam ahead.
Today, ARA computer modules form around an Endoskeleton, but the Endo will evolve. First as different shaped smartphones, but then as new kinds of computers. Ara will power drones, cars, connected devices, maybe even The New Internet (as we explored in the last article).
ARA modules will connect wirelessly, so an ARA device may be spread out across long distances, manifesting itself in a wide variety of hardware. ARA computing may begin to surround everything. The Endo is really just a nerve connecting many tiny computers together. The connection between modules will be wireless, or a fiber optic stretching for miles.
What happens when many people share a module’s function wirelessly? Or what happens when Ara integrates itself into objects all around us? No one knows, that is what’s so exciting.
ARA will quickly surpass what we call a “smartphone” in just a few short years. What comes after (and we’re talking only a few years down the road), will make us completely rethink hardware, software, and interface design.
It is not difficult to imagine, using 2015 technology, a situation where tiny “modular” computers are all around us, connected by a ubiquitous wireless network. And here’s where it gets crazy, though I assure you it is quite possible today. We find ourselves surrounded by, and living inside what we thought of only a year ago was a simple smartphone.
- Project ARA: A Perspective. Introduction.
- Project ARA: A Perspective. The Free Internet and The Rise of Social Computing.
- Project ARA: A Perspective. The convergence of 3D printing and computing.
- Project ARA: A Perspective. Controlling the Future Around Us.