Digital Platforms: Collaborative Distributed Design & Micro-Manufacturing

This thematic session will explore the relationship of analogue to digital maker practices, including the opportunities afforded by digital micro-production, and the use of digital platforms to coordinate and build communities around collaborative design and distributed manufacturing practices.

Multiple distributed design and manufacturing systems have developed as digital technologies such as online file sharing, cloud computing, standardised geometric data modelling and open source programming languages have emerged and matured. These systems share certain common characteristics. They are scalable, both in terms of geographical nodes, technological and social practice and material production. The Fab Lab network, for example, began as a singular lab at MIT but this model has now been replicated 1,186 times.

Map of Fab Labs worldwide

Such systems are also adaptable, so that they can fit and serve particular local contexts. Fab Labs and maker spaces like them can be stand alone, or be attached to libraries, cafes or universities. Many are part of analogue and digital maker communities, either based on research interests, educational perspectives or broader social initiatives. Others function as do-it-yourself or repair spaces, developing a grassroots approach to a circular use of made objects. Yet others take a more corporate approach where the offer is aligned to the promotion of particular business strands.

The inherent flexibility of these nodes and modes of design and production separate them from cruder mass-industrial systems that operate at larger scales and (arguably) with less dexterity. This flexibility is partly a reflection of their different scale, but also the tools and methodologies deployed are inherently different and mutable. Parametric modelling systems, for example, enable multiple designs to be developed from a single common data file with comparative ease and the machines used to fabricate products are (in a similar manner to the early industrial potter's wheel or wood-turner’s lathe) able to produce a relatively broad variety of forms.

Fab Lab Plymouth's Made@EU project exploring analogue/digital maker practices.

Interaction is an essential component of this type of design and making. It is common for information to be commented on, adapted and amended by multiple actors. Connectivity actively encourages improvements in comprehensibility, share-ability, design efficacy and use. The effect of this is the promotion of cooperation between different designers, makers and users, and the active evolution of systems that encourage this type of behaviour most effectively.

What these systems have perhaps have yet to develop, however, is how to communicate the subjective, tactile and material quality responses of the shared design created by the collaborators. This workshop will enable participants to discuss and experience Collaborative Distributed Design and Micro Manufacturing whilst developing the discussion on communicating subjective responses and the reintroduction of the human mark into the design process.

We invite papers and practice-led case studies to, and participation in, a session that will explore all aspects of the relationship between analogue maker practices and digital micro-fabrication. But we are especially concerned to hear of cases where makers are exploring and exploiting the opportunities afforded by the use of digital platforms to coordinate and build communities around collaborative design and distributed manufacturing practices.

Note: participants in this thematic session will also be introduced to the concept capturing facilities and digital manufacturing capabilities of Fab Lab Plymouth at Plymouth College of Art and offered the opportunity of designing an artefact collaboratively utilising the online file sharing capabilities of Autodesk’s fusion 360. Practitioners from both digitally enabled backgrounds and those who have never experienced this design methodology are welcome to participate to create a group dynamic that will attempt to mine potential of a collaborative digital and analogue making practice.