Product Chain: how it changed after Digital Fabrication


In the product chain, atoms and ideas have always been joined together. Before the two industrial revolutions, in the century of the crafts, all professional figures such as the architect, the engineer, the worker, the marketing manager, and finally the salesman where all represented by just one figure. Atoms and ideas where strictly tied together inside the craftsman shop. Inside this one, everything had to be refined; we could in fact consider the last two centuries as a giant refinery, where the product chain has been scattered into many steps that today compose our actual industrial scenario. Anyway, even within this paradigm, no matter how long and complicated the chain is (design, projects, processing, marketing, distribution, sales, etc.), the atoms and the ideas that shape the products are still tight. This time, it is represented by a long and strong cable looping around patents, copyrights, and licenses.



It has been a wile since, thanks to digital technologies, even in the product chain of material objects a new paradigm is emerging. All the changes that previously occurred in the digital content industry (music, texts, videos, photos, etc) thanks to the web are about to happen also to physical products industry (shoes, furniture, glasses, screws, etc). In the same way in which music distribution and sales did change, likewise, physical products will be distributed and purchased. In general, the objective seems to be to brake the cable described above in order to create a network where ideas (bits) and products (atoms) can be considered as two separate events that must be linked together at will.

Many observers think that this is going to shape a revolution. In particular, the journalist Chris Anderson confirms in his book “Makers” (Rizzoli 2012), that now, what just looks like a trend, is going to explode in a real industrial revolution capable of transforming the world of products as we know it. According to Anderson, the result of such a revolution will be a coming back to small digital craft shops that will substitute mass production.



All of this is a result of two big technological revolutions that are slowly converging. These factors are: the globalization of information due to the web, and the new and less discovered digital fabrication; meaning all those technological tools that permit us to pilot machines and utensils through easy to generate files that are also sharable on the internet (3D printers, plotters, laser cutters).

For example, today it is already possible to model a design (a glass, a watch, a pair of glasses, etc) by downloading existing free programs: then, you can just walk in a FabLab or in a maker space and print out the physical product you designed. Between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 some Italian FabLabs started to grow. Now all major cities have at least one (Milan, Turin, Rome, Trento, Genova, Naples, Catania, etc) and there are already some plans to open even more in smaller cities.



Especially in Italy, this revolution could bring some great opportunities. In a country where craftsmen (those able to work atoms) are still considered a great resource, and whose designers (those that can shape bits) are the most appreciated worldwide, investing in this technology and blending those two worlds could really bring the country to the next industrial revolution. Some interesting projects are already in progress; for example, Slowd, created by Andrea Cattabriga and Sebastiano Longaretti, is a platform where designers and craftsmen located all over the territory can work on common projects through the Internet, through the use of digital fabrication. In other words, the designer uploads his project on the platform while the craftsman uses his machines to give birth to the product. Finally, should such a thing actually happen, the consumers would be able to go directly to the crafter shop and buy the products. This concept will lead to a very sustainable production (zero Km) avoiding the need for transportation. The Slowd project is currently a Gold Compass candidate; likewise this approach is a potential candidate for our future.

By Massimo Temporelli

Founder FabLab Milano