Monday, September 28, 2009

Distributed Manufacturing Beyond Trinkets

I've spent the last week swamped with work, out of town taking depositions, and preparing my presentation for the upcoming ASPO conference in Denver.  As a result, I haven't been making the hoped-for progress on my Diagonal Economy series.  However, I have been spending some spare time thinking about distributed economies, and specifically distributed manufacturing.  Ponoko seems to be the current leader in this area--they aren't especially distributed yet, but there's certainly promise.  However, as I've wondered before, how much are current distributed manufacturing efforts focused on the creation of "trinkets," and how much promise do they hold to provide what I'll call "primary" goods in the future?

First, two definitions.  "Trinkets"--I'm using this term to describe most everything that seems to be currently available on Ponoko.  Some of them are pretty nifty, but not exactly essential to sustaining our civilization and quality of life in a post-peak energy world.  "Primary" goods are, by this makeshift definition, the opposite of trinkets--things that can play an integral role in our future production of food, water, energy, shelter, communication, materials, etc. 

Now my question to ponder for the week:  Do you think that a system like Ponoko can currently, or will in the future, facilitate the distributed production of primary goods?  Let's take that 1 step beyond a simple yes/no answer--can you describe such a good that can presently be produced via Ponoko?  How about one that could be produced via Ponoko with minor modifications to their system and infrastructure?  My intent is not to promote Ponoko per se, but rather to use its very well defined parameters to facilitate this conversation on distributed production in general.

I'll start:

Primary good that can be presnetly produced via Ponoko:  a bat box.  Sounds simple, admittedly, but it's well suited to the current production capabilities of Ponoko.  Additionally, this qualifies as a "primary good" precisely because, by housing bats in one's yard, it's possible to 1) control insect populations, and 2) accumulate valuable fertilizer from the bats for use in localized food production.  Bee hives and relate systems are another good example, though the need for wire mesh is slightly beyond the current Ponoko capabilities.  Another:  cold frames.  Worm farm.  The list goes on.

Primary good that can be produced via Ponoko with modifications to its capabilities:  A hand pump.  This would probably require the ability to work with metal, in both sheet and tube form.  I recognize that this is well beyond the current capability of Ponoko, but it's not theoretically that big of a change.  Also, if you added the ability to work with sheet metal and pipes/tubing, the universe of potential "primary" goods would open quite quickly (e.g. solar water heaters, stoves, etc.).

Other ideas?  And a related question:  what primary goods are most important for future distributed manufacture (such that we can guide the evolution of distributed manufacturing systems in a direction, rather than hoping the needed capability arises)?

Final thought:  to what extent must distributed manufacturing networks also address local sources and production of the input mateirals?  Distributed wood milling?  Distributed bioplastics production?  Metallurgy?


Joel said...

Another effort toward this, that focuses more directly on local sources is Factor e Farm.

They've recently put together a tractor and are working on a CAD torch table.

There are bee boxes that do not require wire mesh. Search for "top bar" and you'll find lots of designs, some of which are dead simple.

As to working metal: I think a better method would be to fabricate a re-usable master, cast plaster over that form, and cast Al/Si alloy (like scrap engine blocks) into those molds. The person ordering from a rapid-prototyping company would then be more of a wholesaler, and the raw materials for finished products could be sourced more locally.

Geoff said...

I think depends on how bad things might get. The worse society fares, the more distributed/localised the manufacturing networks and materials supplies need to be. In the worst case scenario most everything will need to be drawn from within a days walk for example. Only high-value goods would be transported further than that, and then the possibility of affording them would counter that too. No point sending goods somewhere if no-one at the destination can afford them.

Goods in our lives exist on a spectrum from consumable to durable, and then one perpendicular to that of essential to non-essential.

Food is squarely in the consumable-essential corner. Food production tools would be in the durable-essential corner. A table would be in the durable-non-essential corner etc.

Such a graph is obviously somewhat relative to the state of society. If things are really bad, then a great many things get pushed to the non-essential end of the scale that we might be inclined to put more importance on in better times. If it comes down to it we can dig with a stick. Only food and water remain in a fixed position.

We can use that graph to map out our needs on a local scale. Durable non-essential goods can be manufactured further away, but durable-essential goods, whilst perhaps being able to be manufactured further away, would at least need to be repairable locally.

The question then arises, that if the capability to repair exists, how well does that cover the capability to create?

A system like Ponoko cannot repair goods, though it can create replacement parts. When your essential good is a hoe or spade that needs a new handle or a bit of forge welding to ensure your food supply Ponoko et al isn't going to do the job. If a local person exists who can repair these things, the same skills can be used to create them in the first place.

I think the drive to repair for extension of the life of products will be the primary motivator of future production capability once throw-away society becomes untenable.

The viability of a system like Ponoko is entirely dependent on the continued existence and reliable functioning of the internet. You'd generally need the bandwidth to support sending designs around. One modification would be keep a stock of standard designs so bandwidth isn't such an issue. Pick a design, have it made and sent on over. It would move toward the industrial standardisation paradigm and away from it's current focus on facilitating creative design.

Again though, the usefulness of such a system is also dependent on our need for goods. If we have enough tools, enough durable goods to fulfil our needs, then we only need repair and infrequent replacement. It's relatively non-durable goods such as clothing that will need most frequent replacement, and I wonder whether having the aged members of the local community spinning wool, knitting and weaving might not fill the gap in a more distributed, informal fashion?boy

Kevin Carson said...

What Geoff said. The devloping crises of Peak Oil and over-accumulation will probably shift the competitive balance between mass production and distributed production.

The capabilities of 100kGarages should produce synergies beyond those of a simple arithmetic adding of ShopBot's routers and Ponoko's cutting tables, and will only grow further once non-ShopBot homebrew routers, RepRap and other open-source CNC machines are added to the mix.

The process of evolution toward genuine manufacturing will probably take the intermediate steps of repair and mass customization.

I also expect some synergies between 100kGarages and Factor e Farm, as their growing product ecology of completed prototypes takes the form of CAD files that can be used by other open-manufacturing networks.

Anonymous said...

I think this is way too much focus on gadgets. John Rob seems to show a simillar predilection. I suppose it comes with the military background, boys toys and all that.
A distributed manufacturig system is called Carpenter, Blacksmith, Tanner, etc. As for open source design distribution, that is called an almanach, or a traveling craftsman.


Joel said...

>A distributed manufacturig system is called Carpenter, Blacksmith, Tanner, etc. As for open source design distribution, that is called an almanach, or a traveling craftsman.

I mostly agree, but almanac and guild systems for information are much more hierarchical than I would prefer, with a lot less capacity for error correction and innovation.

Our patent system has done a good job of breaking guilds' control of practical information, and I think if this information remains reasonably well-distributed, much of the old incentive for journeyman craftsmen to travel might stay as dead as the guild system.

Also, I think most working blacksmiths will find it worth the effort to maintain torch and perhaps even arc welders for quite some time. Similarly, there's a new class of craftsperson emerging in this century: the hacker.

Geoff said...

Hasn't the patent system broken one bloc of centralised power and replaced it with another, namely the corporation?

I'm a reforming gadget person myself, and can see that most things these systems create can be readily done with a little creativity and a few tools, just so long as a fellow has invested some time in the basic skills of working with wood, metal and textile.

I also think this is where we'll see some city/country divide. Most people out in country areas are already multi-skilled and have well equipped workshops. I'd guess the need for these kind of facilities will predominately be in the larger population centres. I wonder what impacts that demographic divide will have on uptake and spread, and the final form?

As for gadgets, I think our personal chances of survival in an uncertain future are inversely proportional to the frugality of our lives, if our household inputs and outputs are balanced in favour of output there will be less that can come along to shock us. Still got a way to go in that regard before I feel safe :-P

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Anonymous said...

Seems to me there's two show-stopping problems with making most important primary goods in anything remotely resembling a distributed way:

(1) Government regulations. One reason you need giant corporations to make even trivial things is the vast and exponentially metastasizing thicket of countless regulations. For crying out loud, even bake sales are licensed in some localities now. After all, as upstanding ethical moderns, we must "protect" the stupid from themselves no matter the cost to society as a whole. If things ever got bad enough to de-fund overregulation, it might also be very hard to support services (or gadgets) for distributed manufacturing.

(2) Patents. Another reason you need giant corporations to make even trivial things is the vast array of patents that often prohibit you from making anything whatsoever this way, that way, or any other way, without first spending big bucks to navigate the thicket, and spending (or being born into) more big bucks to acquire the right "connections". You may well bankrupt yourself even if the only interference is with a patent troll.

Under pretense of "protecting" the little guy, the "system" is utterly rigged against him or her.

Rice Farmer said...

The idea of pooling resources is basically a good one. But as Geoff points out, for a system like Ponoko to work, we need to have the internet and its data-storage capabilities. Personally, I see problems in the offing. We have a very rapid proliferation of data (including our blog posts!), which must be stored somewhere, necessitating the building of many new data centers. One of the primary considerations in siting a data center is where power is available. Since a single data center gobbles power by the megawatt, this problem is only going to get worse, and it is considerably aggravated by the advent of cloud computing. NSA is building a new data center out in Utah because there is no more power available near their headquarters.

So the basic idea of bringing people with ideas, skills, and materials together is good, I don't think depending on the internet is a long-term solution.

Kevin Carson said...

Rice Farmer: The good news is that there were technical possibilities for network culture that predated the Internet--BBS, local last-mile meshworks, point-to-point modem connections. Such point-to-point connections are still possible using the regular old landline network, and new possibilities exist for doing the same thing with local wireless meshworks. Such local meshes, with data stored on hard drives even during down time, are potentially a lot more resilient.

And the good thing about 100kGarages, as it puts lots of garage makers and designers in touch with each other in the same town, is that their interrelations can be supported by direct computer-to-computer linkages on the local landline network, or even by sneakernet if necessary.

Ruben said...

Hi Jeff,

I want to try to skew your judging a little. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about distributed manufacturing while in Industrial Design school, and even designed my grad project for local manufacture.

But, in addition to distributed manufacturing, I think we must consider appropriate technology. So, most bat boxes and beehives would be best made with a table saw and router, not a laser. The level of technology required to build and operate a laser is like using a howitzer to drive a finishing nail.

And, try as I might, when I consider appropriate technology, I can't think of any primary good that should be made by ponoko (with its current capabilities). Sure we could make things prettier, but what do we need that is BEST made by a a distributed laser cutting system? I can't think of it yet.



Joel said...

Geoff & Anon: The monopoly granted by patents, unlike copyrights, expires. The really important primary goods (especially those that require the least infrastrucutre), and even most of the best consumer goods, lost their patent protection decades ago.

Perhaps more importantly, patents allow for non-commercial use: you can build any patented thing you want, as long as you don't sell it.

In a de-industrializing, de-monetizing economy, these two effects would combine to make the restrictions of patents much less relevant. But the requirement to publish would be all the more relevant, if information became scarcer.

nosuchthingasshould: Here's an easily-maintained pair of techniques that could dramatically expand the capabilities of a village blacksmith in a salvage economy: CNC hot wire plus lost foam Al/Si casting.