While it can be correctly argued that the present state of 3D printing and additive manufacturing doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth in the network that connects the pieces, a compelling argument for the central role of ultra high-speed networks can be made. It’s the nerve center of the distributed micro-manufacturing future. 3D printers connected by fiber, joined in the vast Internet of things, producing parts on demand and mediated by layers of software systems, form a vast digital manufacturing platform.

Today, right now, Chattanooga is the only city in the world where this vision can be tested in a real setting. We have our legacy, our gigabit network, and our start up culture. We have the chops, even the duty and obligation, to be a leader in the digital manufacturing revolution.

Ultra high-capacity connectivity is in the developmental stage. The software-mediated micro-manufacturing system built on fiber networks is in a gestation phase. If industrial 3D printing is in its adolescence after a couple decades, the systems that join these machines is a zygote. There are open-sourced platforms in rudimentary stages that need nurturing. Crowds will join in and development will expand exponentially, but it will be a long slog. There are literally thousands of problems to solve, many of them large.

3D printer drivers, for instance, are an issue. Anyone who remembers the adoption cycle of digital 2D printers, first at the commercial level and then the consumer level, knows this. In the 1980s and even the 90s, sending a document to a printer and expecting it to print out correctly was folly. Add the Z axis (the 3rd dimension in 3D printing) combined with exponentially more complex specifications, and the resistance facing the 3D printing-enabled digital manufacturing revolution shows one its many legions.

The National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Initiative, NAMII, is a nationwide initiative that attacks these problems from several directions. President Obama alluded to it in his 2013 State of the Union address. The first of 15 planned centers of innovation is in Yougstown, Ohio, funded with $65 million. Chattanooga should be on the short list of next candidates: we must have a seat at the table in the national conversation.

GIGTANK 2013 will be our next best opportunity to speak to our city about the exciting future Chattanooga and digital manufacturing. Maker Fair 2014 is in the works, and it will be a watershed event. In the meantime, write your congressman, our senators and Nashville, and ask them to support our cause.

The digital manufacturing revolution will happen with or without us. It should happen with us. After all, we’re Chattanoogans.

– Mike Bradshaw, CO.LAB Co-director, GIGTANK Entrepreneur-in-Residence

(Photo by David Andrews)