Digital Fabrication – Make Anything Anywhere

Example of one step in digital fabrication - image of a CNC Lathe & Operator

What is digital fabrication?

Isn’t Digital Fabrication just the process of making something using a digital file? If you asked me that question a few days ago, my answer would have been yes. Well, then my curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to know more about this term digital fabrication and specifically, how it was different than CNC fabrication.

FYI – More details about CNC fabrication can be found here in my post “What is a CNC Machine”

I stated with a definition of Digital Fabrication.


“Digital Fabrication is a manufacturing process in which the materials themselves are digital.”


Great! We just defined the phrase by using a word from the original phrase. That doesn’t help. We need more. What does it mean to have a digital material?

Neil Gershenfeld professor at MIT and head of MIT’s Center for Bit’s and Atoms provides a really good example in his paper The Digital Fabrication Revolution comparing a 3D printer to LEGO pieces. He outlines 4 main attributes of digital fabrication.

In digital fabrication, the material…

1. Corrects for errors

2. Defines the size

3. Is varied

4. Is 100% Reusable


The following is a detailed look at each of those characteristics based on our 3D printer vs. LEGO pieces example.

Corrects for Errors

Lego pieces snap together in a defined way. Granted there are thousands of possible combinations, the point is the raw material, the LEGO pieces, contain information that defines how they connect. It’s digital, it either fits or it doesn’t. It’s either a 1 or a 0. The material contains inherent error correction.

The 3D printer however uses an analog material. It can create almost any shape you can imagine but the errors accumulate. If one layer or section is wrong, the subsequent layers will build incorrectly on the original error and compound the problem.

Defines the Size

A part constructed of LEGOS is not limited in size. I can be made as large as desired give sufficient LEGO bricks.

In comparison, the 3D printer limits the size of the parts. The machine has inherent limits in the x, y and z axis travel.

Is Varied

LEGO bricks are available in hundreds of different forms. You can even find them in metal. All of these can be combined using the inherent rules of the material. There are pulleys, belts, motors and of course the classic bricks.

Unlike LEGOs, the 3D printers are limited to a small number of different material types & joining dissimilar parts is difficult.

Is 100% Reusable

When a LEGO assembly is no longer needed or wanted, it can be disassembled and the parts reused. This is done without the need for an extensive process to change the form of the material itself.

Granted, the parts made on a 3D printer can be recycled, this is not a process typically undertaken at the point of use. We simply toss the unwanted parts into the “Recycling Bin” and the part is whisked away to the plastics recycling facility.

References – Neil Gershenfeld – From Foreign Affairs – Volume 91 No. 6 – Read the full paper here

Why does Digital Fabrication Matter?

In Neil Gershenfeld’s eyes digital fabrication is more than just taking a digital file and truing it into a part. He states…

“It is an evolving suite of capabilities to turn data into things and things into data. Many years of research remain to complete this vision, but the revolution is already well under way. The collective challenge is to answer the central question it poses: How will we live, learn, work, and play when anyone can make anything, anywhere?”

So does this mean that CNC fabrication isn’t digital fabrication? Not necessarily, if we look again at the definition of digital fabrication – a manufacturing process in which the materials themselves are digital. I would argue that a vital part of the material is the digital information that defines the fabrication process. In the example of a CNC milling machine this would be the digital CAM file which is translated to G-Code and fed into the machine as a set of commands. The difference here however, is that the raw material is not digital but still analog. The chunk of stuff being machined doesn’t satisfy all of the 4 characteristics of a digital material.

In my mind, a CNC machine is simply a step along the path to realizing digital fabrication.


So why does any of this matter? Remember the replicator from Star Trek? This machine basically built whatever the crew needed. Imagine for a moment a technology that disrupts how we obtain stuff. The current model is we go to a store and buy it. We are limited to the colors and features set by the manufacturers and designers. However, with true digital fabrication not only do we get distributed manufacturing, we completely disrupt the traditional commerce model of buying and selling stuff. What happens when you can make everything you need right in your home?

Remember the hype and promise of 3D printing? That’s what 3D printing was supposed to do. Yet anyone who has used a 3D printer knows it’s not as easy as hitting the “print” key. Rather 3D printing is a step in the long journey of digital fabrication. Consider the evolution of computers. What began as a science project moved into the real of hobbyists and enthusiast before finally going main stream. Digital fabrication is on a similar path. We already have the ability to build almost anything we want at home. While it’s never been easier, it still isn’t as easy as hitting the print key. Will it go mainstream or will it remain an endeavor for scientists and enthusiast?

Final Thoughts

Are you on board with the idea of digital fabrication? Let me know in the comments below.

I highly recommend you take a few minutes to read Neil Gershenfeld paper The Digital Fabrication Revolution

Thanks for reading. Until next time… Tim

P.S. Are you interested in joining the Digital Fabrication Revolution? Learn how to build your own Arduino CNC Controller for less than $80.

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