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    Credit: Peter Arkle

Digital fabrication and advanced manufacturing have made possible design ideas that were once impossible to execute. A recent report in The Economist highlights these technologies—under the sweeping theme of “The Third Industrial Revolution”—and elucidates their roles within a broad economic context.

One notable insight is the rationale behind the locations of developing manufacturing centers. Many assume that the intense activity in China, for example, stems largely from its relatively low cost of labor. But the reality is more complicated. In a cost study of a $499 iPad, University of California at Irvine researchers determined that only $8 goes towards Chinese labor, out of a total of $33 spent on labor costs worldwide.

With such a small percentage of the product’s overall cost going to international labor, why couldn’t iPads be manufactured elsewhere? The answer, according to The Economist, is that Shenzhen (home of the now-infamous Foxconn) hosts an incredibly successful industrial cluster with “a network of firms with sophisticated supply chains, multiple design and engineering skills, intimate knowledge of their production processes and the willingness to leap into action if asked to scale up production.”

This notion of a successful manufacturing nexus reminds me of Barton Kunstler’s book The Hothouse Effect (AMACOM, 2003), which investigates the basic ingredients required to develop the “creative hothouses” that have influenced technological history, from the Roman Empire to the Bauhaus. According to Kunstler, these key elements are tied to social networks, from shared values to the exchange of ideas and education. As digital fabrication and collaborative manufacturing continue to take hold, the social network will not diminish in importance (although the hothouse effect may move online). Rather, the strength of these connections will determine the economic success of future material technologies.

In architecture, creative hothouses are emerging in the form of digital-fabrication laboratories—or digifab labs. By taking advantage of less expensive, faster, and more readily available equipment, digifab labs provide affordable and accessible computer-automated fabrication services to practitioners and students. The labs, often owned and run by nascent, crossover architects and designers to further their own practices, include Situ Studio and Associated Fabrication—launched respectively by Cooper Union and Columbia University graduates—and online distributed manufacturing outfits such as Ponoko and Shapeways. These service hubs not only satisfy fabrication needs, but also serve as places for in-person and online community interchange and education—providing architects with much-needed guidance related to new construction techniques, prototyping methodologies, specialized material applications, and even consumer marketing.

Although relatively young, this new breed of manufacturing consultancy provides the critical social network necessary for the creative hothouse effect, empowering a community of architects to make more intricate designs that exhibit a greater awareness of material efficacy and performance simultaneously.