Sunday, March 25, 2012

Homebrew Production is Coming

Author's Note: The Homebrew Industrial Revolution, by Kevin Carson, goes into great detail about many of the concepts underlying this series of posts. A number of columns will focus on information gleaned from there. Well worth the time to read. Highly recommended.
In the first column in this series, The Apolitical Economic Superpower, we discussed the rapid growth of the untaxed, unregulated economy that currently provides 50% of the world's jobs, and is expected to provide two-thirds of the world's jobs by 2020, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In The Rising Phoenix Society, we learned of David Obi, who brought electricity to the masses in Nigeria by working an underground distribution deal with a Chinese manufacturer. We looked at local and urban farming as an example of the growth of apolitical employment in the US, and touched on regulation and infrastructure costs as two reasons that smaller-scale production may prove increasingly more competitive with factory farming in the future.

We also noted the great changes in the creation and marketing of literature, music, photography and other arts over the last few years, thanks to the largely unregulated and tax-free internet. We mentioned the grassroots effort that arose in opposition to the corporate-driven attempt by government to squash that great blossoming of creativity. We also observed that education (as opposed to government managed and financed "schooling") is on the cusp of a similar great transformation.

However, there's one major element of society that has and always probably will remain within the Domain of the Dinosaurs; the holy trinity of mass production, mass marketing, and mass distribution. Like it or not, that model is a keystone of the modern economy. The current assumption is that centralized mass production, with its requirements for massive capital investments, high energy and transportation costs, reliance on nation-wide infrastructure, considerable administrative overhead, and reliance on a production-driven throwaway consumption model is the only viable model for production.

Can that model be challenged by one without all those drawbacks? By the process of negation, that model would include low capital requirements, low overhead, local distribution, and build-to-demand production of durable, repairable goods. Unless goods can be economically produced in much smaller batches on much less expensive equipment, that model is a non-starter. But innovations on the horizon suggest a strong possibility that those conditions will be met in the not-too-distant future.

We'll return to discuss that production model in a future column, but for now I'd like to call your attention to just one of those innovations on the horizon, to provide some food for thought as we continue exploring the Phoenix society.

The Homebrew Information Revolution

The first glimmerings of the Information Revolution were in the eyes of homebrew computer enthusiasts, who built their computers from scratch. Some enthusiasts began creating kits including circuit boards and other components produced in basement and garage workshops, with the purchaser responsible for purchasing other components that were readily available from electronics, electrical supply and hardware stores. As demand expanded, more formal companies formed and existing electronic companies entered the computer market. Although there were some earlier home PCs aimed at the consumer market, The Apple II was the first home computer with industry-awakening sales volume.

Just over thirty years ago, the introduction of the IBM-PC greatly expanded the market with products intended primarily for the business market. Apple IIs and IBM-PCs were quickly snapped up by enthusiasts who could afford them, and they became platforms for further experimentation. These dedicated enthusiasts were often derided for their visions of where that technology would lead.

Ten years later, the creation of the World Wide Web revolutionized communications. Once again, enthusiasts embraced the technology and went to work improving it and chasing their own versions of the future. Building on those two basic technologies, a wide range of human endeavors that can be represented in the form of data have been transformed.

In the wake of that transformation, major media corporations have seen their roles as the sole providers and gatekeepers of information disappear. Since words are most easily represented by data, newspapers were the first to feel the pain, but as technologies for converting data streams to images, sound and video improved and bandwidth increased to the necessary levels, other media heavyweights lost their exclusive grasp on the production and distribution of their revenue streams, and individuals and small groups have been empowered to compete head-to-head with those behemoths.

Although the technological breakthroughs included both hardware and software, the entrepreneurial spirit of the hobbyists remained strongest in the area of software, where the tools for development and production were readily available. Advancements in hardware remained primarily in the hands of technology companies who had the equipment to perform such research and development.

The Homebrew Production Revolution

Just as thirty years ago, the vast majority of the technologies that have transformed media were the discounted dreams of a few dedicated hobbyists, a similar revolution is glimmering in the eyes of a few dedicated individuals. And just as the ensuing period saw a transformation in the world of media, the years ahead will see a transformation in the production of goods of all kinds.

Let me introduce you to the RepRap machine.

That doesn't look particularly world-changing, does it? Neither did the first breadboard homebrew computer. The following picture tells much more of the story.

The parts shown in the second image were produced on a RepRap machine. They are the plastic parts necessary to build a RepRap machine. That explains the definition of RepRap; "replicating rapid prototyper." The RepRap machine is the hobbyist version of a wider class of machines known as 3D printers. As you can see, these 3D printers are capable of producing hardware items as readily as today's inkjet printers can print beautiful photographs.

Just as the Homebrew Information Revolution presaged the ongoing Information Revolution, these machines, spreading from the basement and garage workshops of a new generation of enthusiasts, are at the forefront of a revolution in production. Just as with early home computers, kits consist of parts created in basements and garages. But this time around, some of those parts are created on a 3D printer, with the purchaser responsible for purchasing other components that are readily available from electronics, electrical supply and hardware stores.

RepRap 3D printers have improved in successive generations.

Recent generations are even capable of printing circuit boards such as these.

It's also worth noting that as new upgrades are designed and features are added, old RepRap machines can be given instructions to simply build the newer model, or at least those components that are made of materials that can be printed by that generation.

3D printer technology is in its infancy, particularly at the consumer level. However, just as massive computers dedicated to commercial use were widespread before the consumer computer revolution came about, commercial 3D printer technology is well ahead of the consumer market. While the RepRep type 3D printers that I'm aware of print primarily in plastic (board circuitry being an exception to the rule), commercial models are able to print with other materials, including metal, as well. For those interested, there is naturally an abundance of additional information available on the Web.

As I mentioned in the last column, "for the self-motivated subset of society that drives its success, it's rapidly becoming easier to walk away from centralized organizations and centralized policy than it is to change them." In addition to the farmers, mechanics, gardners, writers, artists and craft workers who can easily join the apolitical economy, 3D printing will be the key to opening that venue to small-scale manufacturers.

...and that's all I have to say about that.

Author's Note: The series continues in Open Source Freedom. Here's a Table of Contents for the Phoenix Society series of posts.
A cathedral printed on a 3D printer

Here are a couple of videos introducing the Mendel RepRap machine and showing it creating parts for a sibling.


  1. You think these things are fun, wait till we get a robust nanotech fabricator ticking.

  2. Pretty exciting stuff. How many years are we from designing and building our own farm equipment, transportation, etc. etc.?

    This kind of technology makes massive centralized government control less viable.

    1. I'll mention this in an upcoming column, but you'll probably be greatly interested in where they're developing what they call the Global Village Construction Set. GVCS is an open-source project to develop a wide range of farm and industrial machines that all use a common "powercube" that uses hydraulics as the primary power transfer medium. Fascinating stuff.

  3. Great column, Don! Thanks for the mention.

  4. Another great post. I've definitely seen this on AW between you and Zoombie. I find it mind-boggling actually. But how great would this be if it became affordable...something we could all have on hand or at least, some of us?

    I do hate mass production. I hate how manufacturers create things to die within a year. My husband's cell phone, just today...less than 6 months ago, he gave up on Verizon. It was too expensive, and the "insurance" never covered anything. He tends to go through phones twice as fast as the rest of us due to the nature of his job. He finally got one of the cheap $50 phones with a base rate of $50/month for unlimited (another thing he needs). Not 6 months later, it died.

    I've had my own phone less than a year, and it's already started to do some crazy things, like send the same picture out to the same group of people ten times in a row. Thank goodness I didn't have any nude pics on there at the time!