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Thinking About the Fabrication Future

chaplin_mod_times1.jpgDavid Pescowitz tells us of the fabrication future scenario in yesterday's Salon (subscription or brief advertisement required). In "Desktop Manufacturing," Pescowitz lays out what would go into a personal fabricator, from 3D printing of the physical frame to polymer electronics. RepRap gets its due, as does MIT's Neal Gershenfeld. In fact, nearly every point that Pescowitz makes covers something we've gone into here at WorldChanging.

So why is this worth reading?

Because Pescowitz provides a useful summary of how the fabrication future could unfold, and does so in a relatively mainstream publication. This is a sign that an idea is starting to take hold; people outside the design and technology communities will soon want to have a say in how this future comes about. If it follows a path similar to previous emerging technologies with real-world implications, in a few years -- as the first early designs start to appear in labs -- we'll start seeing lobbyists looking for influence on the subject, industry groups looking for publicity, and poorly-drafted laws looking for a court date.

This concluding bit from the Salon piece tells us why:

[John Canny, a professor at UC-Berkeley's College of Engineering] says that in many cases, consumers might pay for plans instead of a product. Raw materials -- alloy, polymer and nanoparticle inks -- will be staples on a person's grocery list. While companies now play down how crappily their products are made, those who embrace personal fabrication won't even have to worry about it anymore. Perhaps they'll be more willing to pay big bucks for good design if they can leave the manufacturing to us. Still, I look forward to a generation of do-it-yourself industrial designers and tinkerers who improve and customize these commercial product plans. Their work could be swapped online like so many MP3s.

What Pescowitz is talking about -- and what we've mentioned before -- is the digitization of the physical world. The various issues we associate with digital media, such as easy duplication, questions of "piracy," DRM, and potentially even viruses will start to become part of how we interact with our material world, as well. Of those, it's DRM that most disturbs me. We know that there's a slippery slope with the kinds of digital restrictions placed on media; while "license to sit" chairs may not be in the offing, the advent of easily printed (and, hopefully, recycled) devices could presage a kind of limited-use license requiring that you print out a new one -- for a fee -- after a short time.

There's also the issue of what business consultants call "disintermediation" -- the reduction (or sometimes elimination) of the distributor and retailer chains that keep the material economy ("bricks and mortar") efficient. Why go to (say) Target when you can download a Philippe Stark design and print it at home? The irony is that home fabrication could put a place like Amazon, already the king of disintermediation, out of business. Less amusing is the thought of the jobs that go away as these become more popular. How well does an economy function if it consists primarily of designers and hairdressers (and other personal service jobs)?

One subtle, and arguably positive, effect of the advent of desktop fabrication is the acceleration of the shift of energy use from petroleum for transportation to generation of electricity. Each doodad or gizmo you print out at home is one fewer that gets delivered on a truck; it's too early to say how well the energy consumption would balance between the two. But even if the production cycle for the home-printed item takes more power overall than something made in China, shipped here, trucked to a distribution center, trucked to a retail warehouse, trucked to a shipping center, flown to a shipping hub, flown to a nearby airport, trucked to another distribution center, then trucked to your house -- and that's arguably possible -- the fact that we can make electricity from clean, renewable sources more efficiently than we can make clean, renewable transportation fuels (especially for aircraft) biases us towards home fabrication.

The part of the fabrication future life-cycle that's currently missing, and is desperately needed, is a standard method for the disposal and recycling of fabricated goods. Even without usage restriction technologies ("digital consumption management," anyone?), physical goods wear out, break and become obsolete. The last thing we want to do is to increase flows of material garbage. It may well be that the kinds of systems used in home fabbers won't easily lend themselves to disassembling goods, but that doesn't mean we're stuck with ever-larger piles of trash. What would be needed is a home recycler, a different device able to extract the processed materials and return them to a usable raw state. I can't begin to say how this might work; it may require the advent of nanomachine technologies, at which point we're looking at far-more-capable kinds of fabbers anyway.

This is all still a few years off, but it doesn't hurt to muse about it now. In the midst of concerns about global climate disruption, peak oil, bird flu, grinding global poverty and relentless warfare, it's nice to sit back and think for a moment about the big implications of a device that does something humble: it makes stuff.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Thinking About the Fabrication Future:

» Salon Notices Future Fab, WC Engages It from reBang weblog
I'd like to post more about rapid-prototyping and desktop manufacturing, but the truth is there's not much being said out there that I haven't already discussed here. The concept and potential may still be seeping into the mainstream, but I'm watch... [Read More]

» Making the Virtual Real from networked_performance
reBang(ing) via 3D Printers As we move into the fabrication future, we'll see a surprising cross-over between the skills of virtual world designers and the skills of designers of physical objects. We're all familiar by now with the idea of... [Read More]

Comments (20)


I'm curious - what happens if all these much-ballyhooed nano-engineered technologies pose a strong environmental and health hazard? When crop genomics was first proposed it sounded like a great boon, but when the downside was revealed later on, then those who'd invested so much time and effort in developing it were loathe to abandon it. Wind-turbines have been lauded by many, but are now feared as bird-killers due to recent discovery. In the real world, people can invest in what they think is miracle technology only to see their investment jeopardized when new revelations come out about it. The reality is that it's very difficult to walk on eggshells and still maintain viable economics at the same time. Better to do the threat assessment up front, rather than down the road after people have expended their money and effort only to be told "Too bad, so sad! Better luck next time!"

Thank you for that dose of skepticism, sanman. It is needed. And yet thank you Jamais for seeing all the positive potential for fabbing, while also keeping the material and energy use implications on the front burner. This is a fascinating new arena for debating science, egineering, and ethics – one where I hope the people who care (i.e. readers) will have their act together before those who only exploit (i.e. RIAA) squash everything positive about this technology.

Daniel Haran:

sanman- you raise some interesting questions. "The bird thing has got to stop." see http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003721.html for discussion on bird kills. This is a red heron, if you'll forgive the pun.

What I fear for fabricators is that it becomes so cheap that people will just produce more garbage. Why build to last when you have a home printer? We have been promised flying cars, "energy too cheap to meter" and the paperless office. These labs are extraordinary technology, and it won't be too surprising if our best predictions turn out to be completely and utterly wrong.

The trend that might save us from DRM and exponentially more garbage could be open source communities sharing designs. One of the MIT's fablabs might be producing the next Linus. Assembly for disassembly... I'm assuming worldchangers have some rules for cradle-to-cradle design that could apply? An open community is our best bet for this too.

To me the biggest question is "How well does an economy function if it consists primarily of designers and hairdressers (and other personal service jobs)?" I just read Cory Doctorow's Themepunks which is set in that fab future, and the future of work is one of the issues he explores.

Sanman, many nanomaterials do pose a serious health or environmental hazard. hence the search for the low impact buckey ball etc. there's actually entire centers in japan based around testing nanomaterials to make sure their environmentally friendly. many have proven not to be simply becuase they're size itself lets them slip under filtration systems and possibly cause cancer when introduced to the brain (think of mad cow disaese where a protien just bashes around the brain instead of being absorded into the blood stream).

"There's also the issue of what business consultants call "disintermediation" -- the reduction (or sometimes elimination) of the distributor and retailer chains that keep the material economy ("bricks and mortar") efficient. Why go to (say) Target when you can download a Philippe Stark design and print it at home? The irony is that home fabrication could put a place like Amazon, already the king of disintermediation, out of business. Less amusing is the thought of the jobs that go away as these become more popular. How well does an economy function if it consists primarily of designers and hairdressers (and other personal service jobs)?"

Cory Doctorow's take aside (which I'm sure is good), Dick's Solar Lottery took on this issue in 1955. I think economically this raises similar issues to outsourcing of labor i.e. when a primarily manufacturing area like Detroit losses it's primary source of jobs to another area (although granted outsourcing has turned out to be a great way to jump start economies outside of the U.S.) My point being, gathering of knowledge and use of our brains is what we're supposed to be doing in the first place. If desktop manufacture is going to change the landscape from people toiling away in factories to people just printing shit in their house it means all that human capital, to use a Becker term, is freed to pursue better interests i.e. becoming researchers, technicians, designers, etc. The fact of the matter is job creation in knowledge based industries is exploding, if it continues to explode then hopefully it will outpace the fab revolution's replacement of traditional manufacturing jobs. Places like China that rely greatly on manufacturing or the South-East U.S. would be advised to invest heavily in insuring their current resident's children don't end up in their parent's industrial confines.


Rapid, large-scale economic developments cause temporary upheaval and hardship. The transition, which seems disfunctional, is merely the growing pains of a new era. Life always adapts and realistically we can not predict the economic equilibrium which will be reached at any given point in the future but we can make reasonable conjectures based on our most complete knowledge and understanding at the moment. If A then B, if B then C, if C then D, but we can not know A with certainty let alone D. Better to imagine where you can see the future leading and then walk in that direction (AND in the opposite direction if what you imagine is undesirable). This happens without thinking, so dream big. Gardeners, academics, musicians, artists and professional service workers will become more common. I imagine a culture which allows for greater expression of and exploration into the many facets within us all. Collaboration training and human system improvement curriculum (today known as business education) will be introduced at an early age. So assuming that A is ubiqutous personal fabrication then the future looks spectacular in my eyes; and if yours eyes see what mine do and like it then we can join together to manifest the future.

Of course, we must also imagine the risks with an aim to minimize the occurance of delving into negative net present human value endeavors (where the costs and benefits are calculated on a species impact scale). These challenges are formidable but so are we.

One question is: Why do we work?

I think it was at http://www.newwork-newculture.net/business.html where I read we work for three reasons:

1) To _directly_ provide for our needs (grow our own food, etc)

2) To earn money so we can then provide _indirectly_ for our needs (buy food, etc)

3) Just because we like the "job" (i.e., _fun or passion_)

Local fabrication might shift the balance from 2 to 1, and leave us with more time for 3.


Of course, things will not unfold in a simple way. Two key elements will be who owns the local-fab shops, and what is it they can actually produce.

I can imagine fabbing my own teaspoons but also having to go to the shop around the corner to buy a replacement for the broken kettle. Or maybe I can fab a piece that's exactly like the bottom of the kettle and glue that to the kettle itself?

If the car repairment shop fabs the pieces on site, I may not care much but they will. (Not all pieces can be fabbed as easily.)

In short, it will be intriguing to watch.

"Rapid, large-scale economic developments cause temporary upheaval and hardship. The transition, which seems disfunctional, is merely the growing pains of a new era. Life always adapts and realistically we can not predict the economic equilibrium which will be reached at any given point in the future but we can make reasonable conjectures based on our most complete knowledge and understanding at the moment."

here's the problem with this, industrilization caused the largest seperation in socio-economic status in the history of mankind. It literally made people poorer and made the gap between european and euro-colonial areas and the rest of the world so immense it's taken well over 300 years for the rest of the world to catch up, and that said the only people really catching up seem to be Asia. So such pronouncements strike me a bit flat. More automated these processes become the more centralized wealth becomes, the harder it becomes for people outside of that system to catch up i.e. it's hegemonic. While arguably the internet (and thats only parts of it after all korea's internet is closed by a national id system) has spread knowledge out, but this fab thing might finally take one of the greatest sources of income outside of farming out of the hands of the already down and out. To just say it's a growing pain is like saying a nuclear bomb is just a form of destruction like say a Tornado is or something. If we're going to take the devlve into personal fabrication I think we owe it to those who will not benefit from this to at least warn them of the possible consequences and at least let them in on strategies that might benefit them and the rest of the world. Arguably the poor have the most to gain from cheaper production methods, if this can take down the cost of the modern amenities we enjoy and give them greater access to transporation and information all the best, but if providing this service also takes down their ability to make a living, then it's all for nothing anyway. Sustianability is about more than just environmentalism, it's economics and anthropology too.

Disintermediation is a myth.

What technology does is ADD intermediary levels, inexorably. And that's a good thing: the whole division of labor business, making everything more efficient. For example, we've had printers available at home for quite some time now, but nobody prints books or newspapers at home.

And new intermediaries have come up relating to printing and publishing: I work for a (science) publisher, and we have just about eliminated paper from our office: we gather electronic files, select the ones to be published and push them out to a copyediting vendor who then pushes the files out to independent contractors around the world; they typeset and send them back, and then color stuff goes to a special contractor for color separation, then pdf files and various other things go to a printer who prints things out, and the journals are mailed out through another service. And I haven't even started on the new hyper-intermediation on the sales and marketing end!

New technologies enable smaller businesses to focus on what they do best, and let others do what they want to do. Big printers at your neighborhood Kinko's enable local small businesses to do much more than they could before, for instance.

One thing that 3-D printers and the like will really enable though is more physical self-sufficiency of isolated communities, and perhaps indeed less energy devoted to transportation (though there are good economic reasons to suspect this sort of thing will increase energy use, not decrease it). This will be especially helpful with space exploration and settlement - the less physical stuff you have to take with you to live on the Moon or Mars or elsewhere away from Earth, the better...

Daniel Haran:

Andrew, some of your assumptions are quite problematic. Development is not linear, so there really is no "catching up". Even leapfrogging seems to connote a linear pattern that isn't necessarily there- but countries are increasingly skipping our old, inefficient technologies.

It could be the same with fabs. Fablabs are anything but hegemonic. (See past worldchanging posts)

Automated production in this sense doesn't push workers out of production: it pulls designers in. And as fablabs have shown, designers can be found everywhere.

Sun Flower:

Rather than initially viewing the object on a flat screen, a life-sized 3D hologram of the object would help consumer decisions (to minimise post-fabbing dissonance).

Lucas: Human needs are simple but we make life complicated. The western world has long been capable of supporting its population in a social model with little work, much leisure. This hasn't been the outcome, even thought it has been predicted for generations. Most people work and live according to the social model they're familiar with. Freedom amid material comfort may be too heavy a burden for most?

Re: Jamais' terminology - "digital consumption management" and "digitization of the physical world" --> you're actually talking about "digitization" of the manufacturing and retail distribution chain, but not of the physical world per se?

I can't wait to fab a new flying carpet. The old one is getting a bit shabby.

Thanks for posting this. As I'm sure you're aware, I've been thinking and posting about all these issues for some time. It's nice to see it finally entering the mainstream.

Lots of good comments here -- thank you.

I'm well aware that, in the broader picture, major economic dislocation means a migration of skills and job activities, and (in principle) at some point things will stabilize again (until the next paradigm shift). What sometimes gets left out of that observation is that such migration and adaptation takes time, and we end up with extended periods of employment hardship, especially for older workers.

Arthur, I disagree that disintermediation is a myth, although I would hasten to add that by no means is it a universal result, even within a market sector. It's quite demonstrable, for example, that the advent of high-speed Internet connections made it possible to do business with software makers and download apps directly. That doesn't mean that all software retailers are gone (although there are only a few remaining brick & mortar stores), but that the market category is drastically different.

The example of people not printing out newspapers is, I think, off-target. The primary value of newspapers is the information, not the physical medium (unless you're buying them to line birdcages); if you can get the information without the physical form, there's little reason to instantiate a hard copy version. The situation will be different for objects where the physical manifestation is fundamental to performance.

Sun Flower, I'm being a bit colorful with the phrasing, but I do mean the expansion of digital characteristics into otherwise analog physical objects. This can be benign, such as embedding "smart" sensors to allow early warnings of structural failure, or malign, such as the example in the post of digitally-controlled licenses for use. These are both possible right now, but the fabrication process would make them far easier to do, and the "desktop printe" paradigm would arguably make usage restrictions more palatable (or at least recognizable) to the consuming public.

And I want a new flying carpet, too. A hybrid, this time.


I am less sure than most of you (posters) that this technology will reduce costs that much. Costs, after all, are materials, labor, and markup, and the market already functions to make things as cheap as possible.
If we tie this fabrication concept to other sustainability concepts, two fundamental ideas emerge: the disposal of the objects and means for producing them.
Make certain assumptions about the future we'd like to see, like 1) the rise of true-cost accounting and ecosystem services, 2) stronger environmental regulations and higher wages in developing countries, and 3) a radical decrease in the amount of toxic materials in the world.
Add higher oil prices and the materials side seems obvious; something sturdy enough to last a few years (until obsolescence), but biodegradable - some form of bioplastic. In a world with more people, less land for food, less water for industry, and -we hope- greater environmental protection, how much will the bioplastic ink cost?
Add to this the fact that most products we buy are not only produced overseas, but assembled there as well. A FabLab can build the parts, but can it assemble them? It can make a pump, but can it make a PlayStation?
I'm also not sure about labor replacement. Does it Fab metals? How about mercury? Will it Fab a solar array? How much would that cost. I just don't see this technology replacing "people toiling in factories" to make and assemble the products of daily life. Where will your clothes come from?
Though Jamais' point about the newspaper is a good one, even now I don't print my own books because the ink would cost more than the book.
I can see them being cheap and I can see them being green, but I can't get my head around both. Someone enlighten me.

Jamais - I didn't mean to imply that technology change doesn't threaten existing businesses, it certainly does. But even the new information technologies don't do it (for the most part) by actually reducing the number of intermediaries; rather, the new electronic replacements tend to have MORE intermediaries, not less.

For instance, we can exchange goods directly with other people on e-Bay. Well, actually it's not quite direct: there's eBay for one. And the postal service. And the credit card company or PayPal. And our home internet and email providers. And the people who we get that home computer from, and the software, and the web browser makers. And the whole chain involved in, for instance the photograph that appears along with the product we buy. As opposed to the old way, walking over to a local shop and picking out something on display...

It's really a natural consequence of the power of technology: because one individual can do more, fewer individuals are needed to provide any given service, and the world becomes filled with more and more distinct services, interweaving in new and ever more complex ways. It's a really interesting world we live in...


What fabbing does is replace all the generic things in our lives. Nails bolts tiles carpet spackel paint paint brushes jars toys blocks plywood 2 by 4 studs shelves bedsheets shirts shoes socks.

Tons of stuff that for the most part are generic and in 20-30 yesars will be fabbed when we want it at home.

Paper glue pencils pens razors soaps underwear soda fish food cat food cat toys window glass even entire windows. Even the kitchen sink.

Open source everything. Things that PEOPLE will make and then upload the pattern to the internet so from then on everyone can make it whenever they want.

Yes there will still be alot of things you have to buy to get... but far from everything.


I wonder... how long it will take before FabLabs turn into full nanofactories or molecular manufacturing? Not too long, I think. Monopolists won't like it a bit. At present there's talk of a Web2.0. It might be controlled by the UN, one day, though I personally hope it never will. In any case, it seems more likely to me that the web2.0 will be controlled by AIs; say, working both for & against the governments.
The effects will be both positive and negative. The question that matters is: how disruptive will it be?
Even a FabLab will be quite disruptive, I think, because of the potential socio-economic levelling.As for all the junk you think we don't need, isn't that just the incentive to invent MM, so we can break down all the freaking stuff?

Rik said "Monopolists won't like it a bit", and I disagree: they will not like it an atom.

Sorry, couldn't help it. It must be all this talk about hibrid flying carpets ...


Monopolists already dont make generic items so it wont realy effect them at all.
What it will do is trash the bulk market. Things like cheap basic foods and cheap basic clothing.

It might also trash the cheap basic printer market if you can fab the paper with words on it cheaper then with a printer using spendy ink;/

Justin Anthony:

Shades of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. First the cel phone/communicator,then the pda/tablet, and now the replicator. Since I was little, I've been dreaming of saying to a computer, "Mac and cheese, crispy on top, please"! I just KNEW it was gonna happen in my lifetime. And then, when you're done with the container just throw it in the disposal where it's broken down into molecules (or whatever), to be reused later................


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