Life Hack for Manufacturing: MIT Studies Chinese Factories

MIT Media Lab travelled to factories in Shenzhen, China this summer to study manufacturing in their Hacking Manufacturing summer course.

Makers have one common goal: to create lean prototype solutions. Creating a “quick and dirty” solution can streamline creativity, without worrying about the details of creation, the duty of which is passed on down the line. However, with a firm understanding of how manufacturing works, prototypes can be more plausible and can, in fact, inform our solutions to make them more efficient or innovative.

So, MIT Media Lab travelled to factories in Shenzhen, China this summer to study manufacturing in their Hacking Manufacturing summer course. The research project aimed to discover “How can we demolish the barriers between a lab and a factory—for a future where design, development, and deployment are tightly coupled.”

The team partnered with K-Tech, a digital knitting factory, and King, a flexible printed circuit board (FPCB) manufacturer. Rather than using traditional prototyping tools, such as laser cutters, 3D printers, and CNC machines, the team used the factories’ manufacturing machines to prototype. “This ecosystem gave us access to diverse knowledge, tools, and raw materials,” the team reflects. The team aims to bring more integration between makerspaces and factories, with a “spirit of a lab” to foster collaboration, direct prototyping, and iteration.

Makerspace Meets Factory Craftspeople

The team focused on soft robotics made of flexible and adaptable material. Their elastic design is safer and more efficient in tasks like biomimicry, cooperative robotics, medicine, exploration, and wearable electronics. Soft robots can even perform surgery because of their ability to change shape and minimize damage on impact.

MIT Media Lab was surprised to discover that the factories were unlike what they had imagined: factories were not run by machines but by people. Each piece of a product had its maker, “Someone who spent time and effort to fine-tune the machine and to work with the machine to achieve the products people use every day.”

The students learned from these factory makers to gain a different perspective of “knowledge, expertise, and skills that aren’t common in a lab—wisdom that only comes from working for years with the machinery and materials in a factory.”

At the end of the trip, Simen Zeng, general manager of King Credie told the students, “I can tell by looking at the designs that now you understand how these boards are produced. There is a much more efficient use of the materials.”   

Media Lab Forges Lasting Relationships for Collaboration

The main accomplishment of Media Lab was the uncommon cross-factory collaboration between K-Tech knitting factory and King Credie’s flexible PCB factory. “We demonstrated that the blend of these two produces new innovations. In essence, we researchers were like bees, helping to cross-pollinate by doing research that combined the manufacturing processes of two factories,” the students reflect.

Even though the team has returned to the United States, students continue to work with factory members remotely, asking questions over open communication channels to explore with their factory collaborators. K-Tech also donated two machines to Media Lab so they could continue their projects.

“Ultimately, we hope to be able to create a network of factories, in which students, researchers, artists, scientists, designers, and engineers could freely create and innovate by devising new processes. A factory should not only be a place where products are being accurately manufactured but it should also a playground where creativity can be fully expressed,” the team says.

The students have compiled what they have learned into a research paper, currently under review, created a video documentary about the trip, and plan to share their learned knowledge in a Spring 2018 course at MIT and other universities.

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