Monday, July 04, 2005

Backyard Manufacturing

An emerging technology called "3d fax" caught my eye a few years ago and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it.

A 3d fax machine would allow you to put an item into a box in Santa Fe and then be able to replicate that item into a different box here in Columbus, Ohio, using a normal fax line between the two boxes.

The idea is that you can scan the item from multiple perspectives in the first box, and then transmit those specifications as data to the Columbus fax machine, which casts the item out of plastic resin.

It's a pretty simple idea, as long as you keep the item to one physical piece and do not require assembly.

But soon enough, that will be possible too. Think how automated car assembly plants are getting. What's the next inevitable step there? Miniature the car plant down to something that can fit on a desk, of course. Now you've got a 3d fax machine that can build almost anything (as long as it's plastic).

My projection on top of this is that you could obvious take that datastream of specifications from anywhere, not just another 3d fax machine in Santa Fe. It could come from a computer program instead. So you could design something on your PC and then build it right there, more like a 3d printer.

If this became possible, I think there would be a new type of industry popping up which I'll call "backyard manufacturing." You could buy one of these boxes (different sizes depending on how big the stuff is you want to build) and then begin building whatever you want using computer models.

Think of the creativity that could be unleashed! And it would be cheap too!

Let's start with toys. Obviously, most toys are made entirely of plastic, so you could begin creating a whole range of toys yourself, using your own designs or designs you purchased from other people. I imagine that there will be a set of "open source toy designs" that people create as computer data, and then release to the world for free.

Then, I imagine that new companies would pop up who certify certain toy designs as being safe or unsafe for children.

If all this happened, all the toys that are being made in China today could be made in America again using the backyard manufacturing process. The all-plastic items would be the first to move "on-shore" and then maybe wooden, metal items later on.

Would China be in trouble? Probably not, they could do their own backyard manufacturing, but this inefficient process of sending specifications offshore to be manufacturered and then sending them back here again would slow down.

Something as complex as an internal combustion engine would be the last thing to be created with backyard manufacturing, but then I think about the new types of engines coming down the pike, like hydrogen and solar. These have far fewer moving parts and would be much easier (relatively!) than the ICE to create with manufacturing-in-a-box.

I think it's quite likely that Apollo Alliance will be successful in convincing American politicians to create a new Apollo project that provides us with energy independence from the Middle East. When this happens, we'll get cleaner, simpler engines and cars that are more compatible with backyard manufacturing. Not to mention the other new technologies, like brake-by-wire and steer-by-wire, featured prominently in General Motor's Autonomy concept car. Again, the trend is toward simpler designs, fewer moving parts, more electronics.

Currently, big companies have the advantage over smaller companies because of three things: manufacturing economies of scale, exising distribution networks and marketing.

The backyard manufacturing idea gives small companies a leg up on manufacturing. Distribution becomes a non-issue once you can distribute information-only and do the manufacturing locally. And the Internet obviously helps small company marketing look like big company marketing.

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