« It's Hungry | Main | Million Dollar Mouse »

Things are About to get Interesting

We've seen how Napster, Kazaa, and other file sharing protocols shook up the music industry. The film industry is next as broadband technology allows larger exchanges of data. These shakeups, as significant as they've been, are just a small taste of what's ahead. I've written several times about fab labs (here, here, and here), but I've never fully explained why I find these machines so fascinating.

Fab labs are going to rock the world economy like no technology has since the advent of the internal combustion engine. People wonder about the future potential of the Internet - this is a big part of it.

At first, fab labs will be a novelty. They will be hailed as a way for U.S. manufacturers to compete with cheap overseas labor. For the most part manual labor will be eliminated altogether. These first fabricators will be large machines capable of a narrow range of manufacturing. Consumers will be happy with the new goods, mostly plastic toys at first, cheap and marked "Made in America." The Chinese will grumble.

Then some electronics manufacturer, perhaps even a Japanese firm like Sony, will begin single-step fabrication of electronics in factories close to the markets - often right here in the U.S. These electronics will be cheap and tough. The toughness is fortunate because they won't be repairable. They will be a solid piece of plastic with the electronics embedded within. The electronics will be embedded, printed really, within the plastic like another layer of ink on a page. Again, consumers will be happy.

Around this time a large home-building operation will start fabricating homes. The homes will be compared to Henry Ford's Model T. A three-man crew will be able to run a fabricator capable of producing a completed home within three days. The homemaker will run three shifts so that the fabricator can operate night and day.

Homebuyers will love these new cheap homes. Homeowners will grumble as home prices dip.

But the real shakeup will begin when some enterprising computer firm offers the first home fab lab. It will connect directly to the computer and look like a large printer. But it will also "print" solid objects. The first models will be capable of fabricating simple things. Manufacturers will laugh nervously at these first models. "Who wants to pay $5,000 to wait 48 hours to print a toothbrush?" they will ask. And they'll be right. At first just a few nerdy enthusiasts will have them. But they'll begin writing and exchanging fab plans.

That whoosing sound you'll hear will be money flying out of the manufacturing and distribution sectors into computer companies (and elsewhere). The home fab labs will get cheaper, faster, and more capable.

And the file sharing black market will grow by leaps and bounds. There will be congressional hearings as companies like Apple and Motorola complain that their intellectual property, the plans for iPods and telephones, are being cloned or just flat stolen and posted on the Internet. There will be efforts to outlaw or limit these devices. People will be jailed for fabricating illegally powerful new fab labs. Others will go to jail for intellectual property theft. But consumers will demand better and better fab labs. Ultimately the majority will rule.

We'll get the fab labs, but intellectual property theft will be prosecuted more and more seriously. Other types of petty theft will become less common. Why shoplift when you can steal the fab plans for the Playstation 5 off some obscure website or file sharer? File sharing will be heavily policed, but the black market will always be with us.

farmmarket.jpgThere will be other changes. Brick and mortar retail stores will be converted to public spaces or abandoned. Some public spaces will be restaurants, coffeehouses, clubs, bars, and churches. But multi-use space will be in increasing demand as connectivity tools allow easy coordination of impromptu events.

Large retail stores could be converted to neighborhood industrial fab labs. These heavy-duty fab labs will fabricate products that are too big or complicated to fabricate at home.

Engineered town areas may seem artificial, but so is the isolation of sitting alone in front of a computer all day. People will want to congregate in places like this, even as the need for shopping is reduced. Reduced, but not eliminated. We won't be eating fab food anytime soon. Just like the restaurants, the grocery stores will be with us.

UPDATE: Correction on the fab food speculation: We've all seen cakes with pictures printed into the icing with food coloring. At least one chef is experimenting with these food printers in the preparation of more sophisticated dishes.


Great piece, Gordon. While I agree with you on most points, there's one I think is off:

Homeowners will grumble as home prices dip.

A little over a year ago my wife and I had our house re-assessed. It turns out that our house by itself is worth less than half of what the land it's on is worth. And it's not a big plot of land, at all. So I don't think automatically fabricated houses will do much to lower home values.

Actually, I think if we were to bulldoze our house and replace it with a 'cheap' fab'ed house, the overall value of our property would go up, just because older houses like ours have so many (potential) problems.


A large portion of most home owner's wealth is tied up in their home. If the value of that home is forced down, they'll probably grumble.

But maybe not for long. The home might be worth less, but (as you said) the land is worth the same or maybe more. And all these new cheap fabricated goods mean that your dollar goes further anyway.

The biggest problem will be for homeowners concerned about the short term value of their property. As older houses are demolished and replaced with fabricated housing, there will be a strong market of people who want "traditional" housing.


I agree. I also think there will also be a market for other pre-fab items not unlike the market for hand-made or antique items today.

So Ebay will be with us - one of the "connectivity tools."

Of course, with everything but labor and land getting dirt-cheap, we can always print more money.

What'll really be interesting is how home-fabs will make it easy to evade all sorts of restrictions on what we're supposed to have and use. On the other hand, trojan horses can kill.

Can't wait to see how it pans out...

A home fab would be keen and nifty. I submit the real driver for this will be business.

Assembly Machine A goes offline and needs a part. We can keep spare parts on hand (expensive) or have them driven from the nearest distributor (expensive). We're looking at cost for storing, or cost for downtime. Neither is attractive.

With a fab tucked away in the corner I can have it craft the part and have that machine back in service for the time it takes to fab and install.

That translates into more reinvestment, increased productivity and so on. The potential is huge - possibly millions for the mid-sized electronics assembly I work at during the day. More? Could be. This will be a huge driver for the economy.

I doubt that cheap plastic toys will be the first products of fab labs.  Who would devote an early, expensive machine to making junk?  Right now, stereolithography is used to make models and sometimes prototypes.  Unique, high-value industrial or consumer goods (able to support the machine's price tag) seem more likely as first products.

If the machine is capable of constructing a copy of itself, Watch Out.

huh .. Marshall Brain has written some interesting essays on implications of this. In short : elimination of manual labor means everin increasing concentration of wealth.
Robotic nation looming on horizon ? http://roboticnation.blogspot.com ?

it all sounds very exciting and interesting in a science-fictiony way. in discussions with friends i've speculated about similar developments some 25 years ago already - the theory was that the development of industrial civilization could be seen as part of the process of evolution, with machines taking over more and more of our production processes, until one day human labor would be completely redefined. also, it seemed conceivable that one day, genuine 'machine intelligences' might emerge, which fit in with the evolution idea. and certainly we have lots of evidence that industrial civilization has indeed been moving into the direction outlined here over the ensuing years (note that 25 years ago, the personal computer had just arrived on the scene,and the internet wasn't even conceived yet).
well, by now i unfortunately have been forced to revise those naive youthful expectations dramatically.
those expectations sprang from our unique modern point of view that encompasses a very small slice of history containing the most impressive period of scientific and technological progress ever witnessed - a process that we all have become used to, to the extent of regarding the sudden logarithmic expansion that has begun with the industrial revolution as 'natural', i.e. it is almost inconceivable to modern day humans that this process could possibly end, or even reverse.
however, if one looks at what has actually DRIVEN the expansion, one always ends up at the same spot: it's OIL. yes, lowly crude oil....without it, none of what has happened over the past century or so would have been possible.
it is the engine of modern civilization - without it, 4 billion humans would be condemned to instant starvation, and the entire production and distribution system of the world would grind to a sudden halt. over 500,000 individual products are based on petroleum, and the enormous energy efficiency of fossil fuels is the basis for the global division of labor and the complex structure of production it has enabled (for purposes of illustration, consider a shirt, made in China, that you buy at Wal-Mart. unknown to most people, it has been found that the production and distribution of this single shirt involves altogether 38 countries, and an extremely complex process that begins with - what else - the exploration for the oil the shirt's fibers are made from).
it follows from this that it is impossible to consider the future of humanity without considering the prospects for the continued extraction of crude oil. and lo and behold, there seems to be a problem. it's not widely recognized yet, but it will be. the problem is that we're going to run out of oil well before most of the glorious dreams that our unique historical experience has inspired will come to fruition. the global discovery peak has occurred in the 1960's - and as we know from the work of famous petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert, the production peak of an oil producing region tends to arrive approximately 40 to 50 years after the discovery peak - and what holds for a region, naturally must also hold for the world as a whole.
in short, the GLOBAL production peak is very likely imminent, or has already passed (unfortunately it will only be possible to ascertain it well after the fact). it is iow, already too late to DO anything about it. and if so, then our age of industrial civilization will remain a 'special case' - a brief spurt of activity, a millisecond in the geological time frame, basically a short-lived fart that we in our self-important anthropocentric view regarded hubristically as our natural birthright.
in 100 years time we may well be back to a few million people clad in furs, running around with sticks and stones, and marveling at the decaying monuments of a long bygone era. humanity's golden age of industrial civilization will have passed into the realm of legend, and live on in oral tradition until one day, an asteroid hitting the planet will make short shrift of what's left of humanity.
so, will someone build a 'fab-lab' before the chaos and anarchy that will mark the end of the oil age break out? stay tooned. things are about to get interesting, in the Chinese curse sense.

PS: 'cheap plastic toys' are made entirely from oil.


I hope that these changes will not concentrate wealth. Certainly there will be fewer manual labor jobs if most manufacturing goes to fabrication. But there will be more information jobs too.

Also, the availability of very cheap goods will change the entire economy. What will it mean to be considered rich when almost everyone has ready access to most basic goods?

I'm not suggesting that this will be a Star Trek level utopia, but I think the economy will be very different.


I'm sure that part of my speculation will also seem naïve in 25 years. I'm hopeful that we Speculists get enough things right to be a small part of the conversation to get us there.

Petroleum has been critical. But so has writing, the printing press, computers, etc. Perhaps 4 billion would starve if we woke up tomorrow in a world magically devoid of oil. But it won't happen like that. Instead, oil will slowly rise in price as it becomes harder to retrieve.

As the price of oil rises, the alternatives will become more attractive. There are many alternatives. Knowledge is our greatest resource. Even if we see the worst case - oil slowly running out in the next 50 years - we wouldn't lose all that we've learned and continue to learn at an exponential rate in our petroleum civilization. The advancing state-of-the-art will be applied to the problem and a solution will be found.

Our children won't experience a Mad Max dystopia except in virtual reality games.

Trotsky wrote:

PS: 'cheap plastic toys' are made entirely from oil.

One of the most exciting aspects of the Fab Labs scenario is that it promises an evolutionary path for recycling: from an inefficient collectivist enterprise to something we all can and will do. With a Fab Lab in the basement, I doubt I would throw out anything except for food waste. (Or is there something cool I could do with that that I'm not thinking of?)

Anyway, while there's a risk that we all might turn into unbelieveable pack rats, I don't think there's any risk at all that new oil would have to be drilled in order to allow us to fabricate cheap plastic toys.


You're assuming that the world can't go back to coal, of which we still have hundreds of years of supply.  I assure you, the technology for this is well-established and widely avaialble, and at a certain cost for oil it will be used if nothing else is available.  The consequences of climate change may wreak havoc on seacoasts and southern countries, but technological society would continue.

But that's not inevtable either.  The world is literally drenched in free energy; impervious area (roofs and pavements) in the USA covers roughly the area of Ohio, and roughly 500 quads of sunlight falls on this area every year compared to the USA's current total energy consumption of about 100 quads.  Our problem thus far is that our technology for capturing it in useful form has not been adequate to our needs.

This is rapidly changing.  We can already use green algae to convert sunlight to hydrogen at an efficiency of a few percent, and the projected efficiency of quantum-dot-assisted plastic PV cells is 30%.  As an example of how much power that could yield, consider that a container ship might be powered by an 80,000 HP diesel engine (~60 MW).  Today's biggest container ships are about 300 meters long by 42.8 meters wide.  The surface area is about 12,800 m^2.  At a solar flux of 1000 W/m^2 and 30% efficiency, this could generate about 3.8 MW.  Ship speed scales as roughly the inverse cube of power (up to hull speed), so the 3.8 MW of solar power could drive such a ship at about 10 knots, perhaps faster.

At 30% efficiency, the 500 quads of solar energy falling the USA's impervious area could produce 150 quads of electricity.  This represents a 15 times increase over our current consumption of less than 10 quads of coal and nuclear electricity per year.  In other words, there is oodles of room to grow.

I also recall (but cannot find) a recent article about the production of plastic by UV polymerization of backbones using thymine dimers for cross-linking.  The useful property of this is that an enzyme derived from E. Coli can cleave the cross-linkages and return the material to the monomer state.

Who needs a supply of oil when you can recycle your plastics almost indefinitely? Especially if you can make your monomers with a bunch of bugs in a vat?

With a Fab Lab in the basement, I doubt I would throw out anything except for food waste. (Or is there something cool I could do with that that I'm not thinking of?)
If you go the thermal depolymerization route, you could convert it into hydrocarbon fuel or monomer feedstock.


Food waste (even sewage) can be reclaimed as oil:


Our energy problems will be related to the environment, not availability.

NB:  The cite for the conversion of sewage sludge to oil included 25% grease-trap refuse.  The grease will greatly increase the total available energy in the input; it may not be possible to process pure sewage sludge without supplementing it with higher-energy materials or energy inputs.

This is not to say that it's impossible; I can't see why a TP plant couldn't be designed to use heat from e.g. a solar concentrator instead of burning its own gas production, allowing the processing of inputs unable to produce enough energy to be self-sustaining and effectively converting solar heat to chemical fuel.

(The silly posting system is once again claiming I'm logged in for entry, but that I'm not when I click the post button.  Five attempts thus far.)


I was having similar problems signing on to these comments on my home machine.

I downloaded a different browser (Opera, actually) and it works.

Maybe there's some setting in IE that would clear this problem up.

It would be extremely interesting if IE settings could fix this, as I'm running Mozilla under Linux. ;-)


I was just thinking about your pack rat idea.

That would probably be a problem at first. We have these fab labs that can make us anything we want...and so we begin filling our house with this stuff.

Pretty soon we'd realize that more than the stuff, we need space to walk. At that point - particularly if fab labs had become reasonably fast in operation - we might start living a "Just In Time" lifestyle.

If we need something we'd fabricate it, use it, and then toss it in the fab recycle bin where the basic materials could be used again to fab something else.

A smart fab lab could even keep an inventory of the bin. If you asked it to fab something already in the bin it could ask: "That item has been fabricated and is awaiting recycling, are you sure you'd like to refab?"

Interestingly enough, there was a story in Analog about that exact concept a few years ago.

Here's a story about a project in development at the University of Bath: a self-replicating 3D printer that can print out all the parts needed to make a copy of itself (which would have to be assembled by a person):

3D printer to churn out copies of itself

The article speculates that this could cause the price of 3D printers to plummet from around $25,000 to around $500. The scientist working on this is also planning to make the self-replication software open source, so others can make improvements. Let's hope this project pans out...

very good photo!!! )))

Post a comment