Sunday, March 18, 2012

Don't Hold Your Breath Waiting for the Nanobots

Since I was at most a teenager, I've considered myself a futurist. Blame it on all the sci-fi I read. I can remember countless conversations, usually with my older brother, about "what happens next," including the conversation in 2007 in which we predicted the ubiquity of cloud computing and the app economy (we didn't quite predict tablets, being still smitten with netbooks, but we definitely foresaw the end of powerful personal computers). One of the most exciting trends I was anticipating back then was the end of industrial manufacturing.

A common term used to describe the U.S. and other developed societies is "post-industrial," meaning that our economy is no longer driven by manufacturing, but by information processing. Others say we're in the "information age." Using these terms to describe where we are now is misleading, though, because we have not fundamentally transformed the way things are done; we've merely accelerated the division of labor so that entire regions and countries take on specialized roles. In fact, even describing the global economy with these terms is misleading, because some of the most successful national economies (e.g. Germany, Japan) are successful largely because they have managed to integrate both information processing and manufacturing. It's only from a narrowly US-centric perspective that we live in the "information age."

It's a sad truth, really. The promise of an information-based or post-industrial society is rich and transformative, not least because it will overthrow the tyranny of sameness imposed by mass production. To truly move past the industrial age, though, will require manufacturing technologies that achieve the economies of scale of assembly lines without the scale. It will require all-purpose factories that can be reconfigured instantly and freely based on easy information input.Our information technologies are ready - CAD software is powerful, ubiquitous, and (sort of) easy to use. We are just waiting for the manufacturing technology.

I thought for a long time that the only way to usher in the true next revolution was through nanomanufacturing - building anything from molecules up. The matter compilers described by the likes of Eric Drexler and J. Storrs Hall and popularized in novels like Diamond Age offer a factory in a box, producing anything you please by throwing together the right molecular feedstocks. Matter compilers, the end of the industrial age, are the primary reason I'm in this field and the ultimate goal of most of my ambitions. Only now I'm realizing they may not be necessary.

One of the appeals of the matter compiler is its overthrow of the industrial  economic order - once you make one, you can use it to make another for cheaper, and no one can stop them from spreading into the hands of all but the poorest. Wouldn't Marx be proud? The means of production in the hands of the producers, and all without violent revolution. Nanomanufacturing is just as far off now as it was when it was proposed (which is to say we still have no idea how to do it or if it will even work), and yet people are building self-replicating reconfigurable manufacturing machines. Through incremental advances in rapid prototyping technologies, we're already approaching several of the requirements of the post-industrial revolution. An open-source 3d printer that can build structures of PLA and ABS can recreate all of its own critical parts so that a new machine can be built for a few hundred dollars. An open-source CNC machine (a subtractive process, basically a robotic router), though it cannot replicate itself, can be built for about $350. Though they are not all open-source or self replicating, various 3d printing technologies can be used to print ceramics, various non-thermoset plastics, and even stainless steel! Laser cutters, while neither self-replicating nor cheap enough for most personal consumers, are versatile and widespread enough that most dedicated "makers" can get access to one for a few dollars per minute. When did the world change and why am I just now realizing it?

Yesterday I took the bus to Metrix Create:Space and printed off a spacer for my bike to replace one that broke a few months ago. I had been planning to go to a hardware store and find a similarly-sized washer to replace it with for a dollar or so, but instead I spent about 15 minutes on a CAD program and about 20 troubleshooting the 3D printer, and got a nearly-perfect replacement part for $1.37. I'm beginning to rethink the steps of my career goals - maybe I should focus on expanding the range of materials available to rapid-prototyping machines rather than pushing the boundaries of molecular-scale control of materials synthesis.

1 comment:

  1. You went to Metrix Create?! I want to go there and 3D print some jewelry :)