Manufacturing for Software Engineers

by Joseph Flaherty on July 6, 2009

I write this blog because I believe combining software and custom manufacturing technology will enable the disruption of huge markets and ultimately give people the ability to make anything they imagine. The same way blogging software has helped democratize journalism custom manufacturing can level the playing field for those who want to create physical goods.

Unfortunately the worlds software and manufacturing don’t overlap as much as they could. A major knowledge/communication barrier exists. Manufacturing folks talk about HDPE resin while hackers discuss PHP scripting, Mother of pearl finishes vis PERL programming, and so on.

Software engineers who could reshape industries worth tens of billions of dollars often don’t even realize the opportunity because manufacturing is such an opaque activity. For any software engineers who are interested in “Web Meets World” style projects, the following resources are a brief introduction to the world of mass production technologies.

Manufacturing for Design Professionals – Rob Thompson


This is the best introduction to manufacturing processes and materials you will find anywhere. It is a magnificent production, the only manufacturing text that could double as a coffee table book. Covering all kinds of manufacturing processes and materials, from fabric to metal, it will help you understand how manufacturing works. The book is well appointed with diagrams that would make Edward Tufte proud. Descriptions are written for an audience without prior manufacturing experience. Each section provides information in an encylopedic fashion allowing you to easily understand the benefits and drawbacks in a truly comparative fashion.

Each material or process is compared along the following qualities:

  • Photos of the final product/manufacturing process
  • Step by step diagrams
  • Links to featured manufacturers
  • Clear, jargon free descriptions of the processes
  • relative cost, time, and quality information
  • When to use the materials/process and alternate options

It is available on Amazon for $60 and is well worth every penny. After reading it you will better understand how the world around you is manufactured.

How It’s Made

How it’s Made is a TV show that takes you behind the scenes of various manufacturing plants and walks you through the manufacturing process from when the trailer trucks show up with raw materials to when they head back out filled with finished products. Each episode features an ecclectic set of products (ex. an episode featured toothpicks, acrylic bathtubs, helicopters, and beer). It is a relaxing and easily watched while banging away at a laptop, but provides very useful information. Importantly, it helps clarify how various manufacturing processes work in concert to create the finished product.

The full series is available on iTunes.

The Best of Make:

Make: and Craft: magazine are widely known in the software community. Each issue is a compendium of philosophical writings on manual production and helpful step by step instructions for a variety of projects. The compendium “The Best of Make:” is a handy reference guide that gives guidance on how to carry out some challenging processes like resin casting and working with plastics. These processes don’t scale, but provide a decent introduction to physical material properties.

Other Resources

Core77 – The best online destination for information about Industrial Design. Their forums are particularly helpful if you are looking for information about design for manufacturing.

Instrucatables – Already well known in the tech world instructables is a great resource if you want to learn a particular technique

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