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New industrial revolution

Pamela Buxton

The Industrial Revolution took place ages ago, right? Wrong. The Design Museum’s stimulating new exhibition The Future is Here: A New Industrial Revolution convincing makes the case that we are living through a second, technology-driven revolution in manufacturing that will transform not just methods of production but the role of the consumer in the entire process.

This show, designed by dRMM Architects, deals with these big, challenging issues in an engaging, thought-provoking manner that would interest even the most hardened technology Luddite.

Importantly, it brings manufacture right into the exhibition, setting up in one corner a ‘factory’ for 3D printing and laser etching and cutting staffed by Design Museum employees with no previous expertise in the area.  At the opposite end of the exhibition are two Kuka robotic arms, busily building a wall of CNC-cut plywood. Then there are the looms – not those of the previous industrial revolution but those of the present. One, a digital loom, operates like a 3D sketchpad allowing the weaver to experiment and produce complex weaves in superfast time. Even more impressive is the footage of a 3D circular carbon loom, which is beginning to be used by the automotive industry to weave carbon fibre reinforced plastic with exactly the right strength and weight. When encased in resin, these then form components of vehicles such as the Lexus.

As well as showcasing the technology – including CNC routing, additive 3D Printing, and nanotechnology – this show presents the end results from trainers to furniture. Importantly, it also raises the big issues around the show-stopping technology. Central to these is the blurring of the boundaries between designer, user and maker, which is resulting in completely new concepts in production. Instead of being just the users, we are invited to participate as partners in the design and production process and embrace the potential for mass customisation that this new technology brings.

This new diversity of manufacture brings the prospect of crowd-sourced and open-sourced designs and what that might mean for the role of the designer and the retailer, plus the ethics of open-sourcing’s deregulated nature. It’s all rather exciting, if unsettling. Should everyone be able to source and print their own designs even if that includes weapons? And what of a product’s true carbon footprint? If you’ve never heard of a product’s ecological backpack, you will after visiting this exhibition.

What of the impact on architecture? There is fascinating footage of Facit Homes’ digitally-fabricated business, which sets up temporary, digitally-controlled micro factories on-site to build each home. Facit are designers, manufacturers and contractors all rolled into one – could this be a new model for architectural practice? Then there’s the potential of concepts such as Wiki-House for open-sourced timber-framed construction.

The exhibition rightly poses more questions than it answers. It’s a brave new world out there – and this new industrial revolution is only just beginning.

The Future is Here: A New Industrial Revolution, until November 3, 2013, Design Museum, Shad Thames, London