Radical Manufacturing

Seeing the future in three dimensions

The Industrial Revolution invented the factory, where ever-larger concentrations of labor, capital, energy and raw materials could be brought together under a unified management structure to extract economies of scale from mass production, based on the standardization of inputs and outputs, including specialized, routinized work, and — ultimately – precisely programmed, robotically-serviced assembly lines. It was in the factory that workers became ‘proletarian’, and through the factory that productive investment became ‘big business’. As the system matured, its vast production runs fostered the mass consumerism (along with the generic ‘consumer’) required to absorb its deluge of highly-standardized goods. As the division of labor and aggregation of markets over-spilled national boundaries, economic activities were relentlessly globalized. This complex of specialization, standardization, concentration, and expansion became identified with the essence of modernized production (in both its ‘capitalist’ and ‘socialist’ variants).

Initially, electronics seems only to have perpetuated – which is to say, intensified – this tendency. Electronic goods, and their components, are standardized to previously unimagined levels of resolution, through ultra-specialized production processes, and manufactured in vast, immensely expensive ‘fabs’ that derive scale economies from production runs that only integrated global markets can absorb. The personalization of computing hinted at productively empowered home-workers and disaggregated markets (‘long tails’), but this promise remained basically virtual. The latest tablet computer incarnates the familiar forces of factory production just as a Ford automobile once did, only more so.

Personal networked computing has proven to be a catalyst for cultural fragmentation, breaking up mass media, and eroding the broadcast model (which is steadily supplanted by niche and peer-to-peer ‘content’). It cannot radically disrupt – or revolutionize – the industrial system, however, because computers cannot reproduce themselves. Only robots can do that. Such robots are now coming into focus, and inspiring excited public discussion, even though their implicit nature and potential remains partially disguised by legacy nomenclature that subsumes them under obscure manufacturing processes: rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing, and 3D printing.

As this disparate terminology suggests, the revolutionized manufacturing technology that is appearing on the horizon can be understood in a number of different and seemingly incongruous ways, depending upon the particular industrial lineage it is attributed to. It can be conceived as the latest episode in the history of printing, as the culmination of CAD (computer assisted design) capability, or as an innovative type of productive machine-tool (building up an object ‘additively’ rather than milling it ‘subtractively’). It enables ideas to be materialized in objects, objects to be scanned and reproduced, or clumsily ‘sculpted’ objects to be replaced by precisely assembled alternatives.

Typically, 3D printing materializes a digitally-defined object by assembling it in layers. The raw material might be powdered metal, plastic, or even chocolate, deposited in steps and then fused together by a reiterated process of sintering, adhesion, or hardening. As very flexible machines (tending to universality), 3D printers encourage minute production runs, customization, and bespoke or boutique manufacturing. Changing the output requires no more than switching or tweaking the design (program), without the requirement for retooling.

Describing additive manufacturing as “The Next Trillion Dollar Industry,” Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry celebrates “potentially the biggest change in how we make things since the invention of assembly lines made the modern era possible.” Whilst its early-adopters represent the fairly narrow constituencies of rapid prototypers, specialty manufacturers, and hobbyists, he pointedly notes that “the first people who cared about things like cars, planes and personal computers were hobbyists.”

Gobry sees the market gowing rapidly: “And the printer in every home scenario isn’t that far-fetched either — only as far-fetched as ‘a computer in every home’ was in 1975. Like any other piece of technology, 3D printers are always getting cheaper and better. 3D printers today can be had for about $5,000.”

Rich Karlgaard at Forbes reinforces the message: “The cost of 3D printers has dropped tenfold in five years. That’s the real kicker here — 3D printing is riding the Moore’s Law curve, just as 2D printing started doing in the 1980s.”

With the price of 3D printers having fallen by two orders of magnitude in a decade, comparisons with other runaway consumer electronics markets seem anything but strained. “It’s not hard to envision a world in which, 10 or 20 years from now, every home will have a 3D printer,” remarks dailymarkets.com. Mass availability of near-universal manufacturing capabilities promises the radical decentralization of industrial activity, a phenomenon that is already drawing the attention of mainstream news media. At techliberation.com, Adam Marcus highlights the impending legal issues, in the fields of intellectual property and (especially) product liability.

To comprehend the potential of 3D printing in its full radicality, however, the most indispensable voice is that of Adrian Bowyer, at the Centre for Biomimetic and Natural Technology, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath, UK. Bowyer is the instigator of RepRap -“a project to build a replicating rapid prototyper. This machine, if successful, will be an instance of a von Neumann Universal Constructor, which is a general-purpose manufacturing device that is also capable of reproducing itself, like a biological cell.”

He elaborates:

There is a sense in which a well-equipped manufacturing workshop is (just about) a universal constructor -it could make many of the machine tools that are in it. The trouble is that the better-equipped the workshop is the easier it becomes to make any one item, but the greater the number and diversity of the items that need to be made. It is certainly the case that human engineering considered as a whole is a universal constructor; it self-propagates with no external input. … RepRap will be a mechatronic device using entirely conventional (indeed simple) engineering. But it is really a piece of biology. This is because it can self-replicate with the symbiotic assistance of a person. Anything that can copy itself immediately and inescapably becomes subject to Darwinian selection, but RepRap has one important difference from natural organisms: in nature, mutations are random, and only a tiny fraction are improvements; but with RepRap, every mutation is a product of the analytical thought of its users. This means that the rate of improvement should be very rapid, at least at the start; it is more analogous to selective breeding -the process we used to make cows from aurochs and wheat from wild grass. Evolution can be relied on to make very good designs emerge quickly. It will also gradually eliminate items from the list of parts that need to be externally supplied. Note also that any old not-so-good RepRap machine can still make a new machine to the latest and best design.

A self-replicating and symbiotically assembled Universal Constructor would proliferate exponentially, placing stupendous manufacturing capability into a multitude of hands, at rapidly shrinking cost. In addition, the evolutionary dynamics of the process would result in an explosive growth in utility, comparable to that attained from the domestication of plants and animals, but at a greatly accelerated pace.

The implications of the project for political economy are fascinating but obscure. Bowyer describes it as an exercise in “Darwinian Marxism,” whilst fellow RepRapper Forrest Higgs describes himself as a “technocratic anarchist.” In any case, there seems no reason to expect the ideological upheavals from (additive and distributed) Industrialism 2.0 to be any less profound than those from (subtractive and concentrated) Industrialism 1.0. The fall of the factory is set to be the biggest event in centuries, and robot politics might already be taking shape.


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