Here Thar Be Monsters!

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4.10.12

Garbage In, Product Out



Captain Picard turns to a recessed panel on the wall.  “Tea, Earl Gray, hot,” he commands.  Within seconds, a steaming cup of hot tea appears on the tray, which he takes to his desk to ponder the daily reports.

In my last column (Revolution No. 10), I mentioned that the revolution is already here, and indeed it is.  It may be difficult to see just yet, but it is growing rapidly and within a decade or two will completely transform every aspect of our lives in ways we can only just begin to imagine.

Let’s play one of our fun little thought experiments so you can see the revolution in action.
You live in Future City, a planned community of 10,000 people or so, though you’d hardly know it.  The houses are designed to blend completely into the surrounding trees and natural setting.  This provides maximum privacy, as well as a quiet and aesthetic place to live.

You don’t often run into your neighbors during the week, unless one of them happens to be gong to the rec center at the same time.  Today, you meet up with Dan who lives two doors down.  He’s taking his rec cart down to the center, as well.

“Hey Dan!  Mind if I tag along?  I’m heading to the rec myself,” you say as you catch up to him.
“Please do!  How’s the wife and kids?” he asks with genuine interest.

“All doing great!  Angie just composed a new synth-phony for her recital on Wednesday.  Hope you and Susan can come down and join us,” you reply.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Dan says.
“You don’t have much rec there, Dan.  Just needed a break?”

“I’m on the way to pick up the new steam engine I’ve been working on,” he beams.  “Finally got the prototyping stage.  I’ve managed to increase efficiency 3.7% while reducing the overall weight by 2 kilos!  I’m hoping this will get me over the 160kpm mark.”

“Good God, man!  I can already drive your cars for a month without refilling the water tank!  When will you rest?” you ask, half-jokingly.
“Can’t.  Got an order from a guy in China for 10 cars if I can get them up to 315 kilometers per liter of distilled,” he says, looking slightly distracted by deep thoughts.  "He wants me to print by the 10th."

You both arrive at the rec center.  There are bins labeled “plastic,” “glass,” “rubber,” and so on.  You both dutifully toss your rubbish into the appropriate hole.

One of the key selling points of Future City was that it had an additive manufacturing center at the heart of the community.  The machine keeps track of how much raw material you throw into the rec center, and then off-sets that against your ‘printing’ costs.

You follow your neighbor around to the claims counter.  The bubbly teenaged girl behind the counter recognizes Dan and disappears into the store room.  In minutes, she re-appears with the engine.
“Here you are Mr. Faber.  The printing cost was 100 Future bucks, which we deducted from your account.  Thanks and have a great day,” she says enthusiastically.

Back at the house, as you walk in, your spouse reminds you of the leaking drain under the bathroom sink.  “Blast,” you think, “Forgot about that.”

You jump on the computer and pull up the house’s owner manual.  You select “master bath,” “sink,” and “drain pipe with trap”.  A photo pops up on the screen and you verify that’s the one your want, then click the “print” button.  You put a note on the desktop to pick up the pipe when you take the compost down to the rec center later in the evening.

Hopefully, Dan will be out testing his new prototype then.
Additive manufacturing or 3-D printing is set to change the world completely.  If suddenly all manufacturing is done in your neighborhood, then it fundamentally changes the basis of all economic activity, and the implications are enormous.

If, like Star Trek, you can simply click a button and ‘print’ any device, piece of clothing, mode of transportation, piece of furniture, spare part, toy, or possibly even food, then overnight there is no need for large factories, mass shipping, department stores, warehouses, dealerships, and dozens of other jobs and businesses would vanish.

Instantly, the economy would shift to one of ideas with every human being potentially being an inventor.  If I design something you like, you can pay me and I click ‘print’ to your local 3-D printer.  Within hours, or even minutes, I could deliver my product to you anywhere in the world without using an ounce of fuel.
How close are we to this kind of world?

The printers have been around for a couple of decades now, but in the last few years the technology has improved tremendously and the price tag has shrunk at the same time.  If the key technology of turning post-consumer waste into raw materials for new products comes along, then the sky’s the limit.
The more you ponder such a world, the more profound the changes you perceive.  Micro communities built around industrial-sized 3-D printers.  Micro economies with successful groups issuing their own currencies, producing their own renewable energy, and marketing products globally with no more effort than sending an email.

For every product, there would be thousands, if not millions, of potential manufacturers.  The pressure to innovate would be incredible.  The ability of governments to regulate or corporations to monopolize would vaporize instantly.  Almost every human on Earth would become a producer of something, whether it was art, or music, or clothing, or brooms.
But, you ask, suppose the 3-D printer broke down?

Try this out…you buy a new printer.  You plug it in, turn it on and immediately, it creates an exact copy of itself, which you put away.  If the printer breaks, you plug in the new one, which immediately creates and exact copy of itself, while you turn the old one into scrap and feed it back into the machine for raw materials.
Anything would be potential raw materials – grass clippings, scrap wood, left-overs from dinner, old clothes – just chuck it all into the hopper and crank out new stuff.

Hook the whole thing up to solar, wind or other renewable power source, and you have a near-perfect system that is pollution-free and virtually without cost to operate, while at the same time creating useful products that are infinitely customizable and can be pumped out in as great or as few numbers as desired at any location on Earth.

Truly stunning possibilities, when you think about it.  And we are very close to having thiscapability right now.

As Henry Ford famously said about his Model T cars, “You can have any color you want, as long as it’s black.”

Now, mass production is precariously close to being able to customize any product for any individual without additional cost or effort or re-tooling.  Just modify the blue print in CAD and ‘print’.
No more need for nation-states, regulatory bodies, central banks, or transnational corporations.  Just thousands of autonomous regions competing with design, innovation and aesthetics in a truly global marketplace.

This kind of revolution has no precedent in all of human history.  There would be nothing like it to compare to or learn from.  We would be on virgin territory having to grope our way into this brave new world.
Since this kind of change would be uncharacteristic of anything before it, perhaps we should do something uncharacteristic and prepare before it gets here.

This all sounds wildly impossible, I know, but then so did smartphones when I was a kid.