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MIT Team working textile factory floor

‘Hacking Manufacturing’ MIT Course Opens Manufacturing Techniques

MIT Media Lab has developed a course that allows academic researchers and graduate students to explore ways to create new materials and industrial processes.

Since 2013 academic researchers and graduate students from MIT Media Lab have been traveling to Shenzhen China for Hacking Manufacturing. The pilgrimage is based on conducting research on a manufacturer’s factory floor of industrial machines. The researchers and graduate students are part of a course titled, “Hacking Manufacturing.” 

MIT Media Lab has developed the summer course that allows academic researchers and graduate students to explore creative and innovative ways in creating new materials and industrial processes. The MIT research team created new smart fabrics and materials by modifying textile machines. Also, the MIT Media Lab venture allows the exploration into hacking PCB (printed circuit board) manufacturing processes and machines during this hands-on explorative summer course. The lessons learned from this open manufacturing event will shed light on the creation of new industrial processes and the designers that create them.

What is Hacking Manufacturing?

The Hacking Manufacturing course is designed to allow academic research of industrial machines and processes in the development of new innovative materials. The theme for the 2017 class was soft robotic materials. The supporting Shenzhen Manufacturers were K-Tech and King Credie. K-Tech is a digital knitting factory and King Credie a flexible PCB manufacturer. The location of Shenzhen is an excellent hub for such academic research because of the variety of factories and products produced in China. The selected Shenzhen factories also provides an added advantage of modifying machines easily without worries of automated systems. Automated machines reduce the hands-on research into developing new smart materials manufacturing due to software coding complexities that is associated with digital programmability processes. Remixing of cutting tools, and dies allow the manufacturing hack to be accessible in the academic research conducted by the MIT team.

The MIT 2017 Hacking Manufacturing class. Image source: Bai Chuan

Research Goal

The goal of the academic research was to investigate and see new innovative outcomes using existing manufacturing machines as prototyping tools in the developing new smart materials. Traditional manufacturing consists of having a product specification, engineering and assembly drawings, and timing schedules. The concept of the manufacturing hack is to work with machine operators to make modifications on product processes to produce new innovative materials. The ability to try new ideas adds to the creative and innovative process of developing new smart materials. The new smart materials are then used in developing soft robotics applications. Also, academic research papers are written on the Hacking Manufacturing process experience. In addition, the new product ideation phase is merge with production and prototyping techniques.

MIT academic researchers and graduate students working on King Credie’s Flexible PCB factory floor. Image source: MIT Media Lab/Artem Dementyev.

Process Flowcharts

Process flowcharts show the steps involved in the machining process of PCBs. With this flowchart, the MIT team can modify the process to enhance a new method of creating flexible PCBs. Experimenting with traditional process sequencing of PCBs by developing new ones allow the end-product to provide unique outcomes of the electronics flexible material. This innovation leads to new applications in HCI (human computer interfacing) related to soft robotic materials.

Process flowchart for two-layer flexible PCB. Image source: MIT Media Lab/Artem Dementyev.

Traditional vs Hacking Processes

Unlike traditional machine processes consisting of turning, drilling, boring, reaming, and milling operations, Hacking Manufacturing is based on creative play. The academic researchers and graduate students experiment with new machine processes with no preconceived notion of what the outcome will be. The freedom to customize and experiment with unconventional processes alleviate the pressures that come with traditional machining operations in manufacturing facilities. Table top manufacturing tools consisting of laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC routers, and other customized digital and manual fabrication tools have a production limitation related to scalability and product volume runs. Hacking Manufacturing processes in the development of soft robotic materials allow a new perspective to gross volume production runs and material cost points.

Typically, manufacturing is vertical based on development infrastructure focused on producing one product. The Hacking Manufacturing philosophy is a multi-collaborative method of factories sharing human and technical resources for creating a new and unique product. Working with K-Tech knitting and King Credie’s flexible PBC factory, a variety of processes were developed for creating soft robotic materials. The research also demonstrated the integration of how two distinct manufacturers can create innovation in the development of smart materials. 

Additional information on the MIT Hacking Manufacturing course can be found here.

TAGS: Materials
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