FROM MASS PRODUCTION TO PRODUCTION BY THE MASSES
The distributed, collaborative, and laterally scaled nature of the Internet of Things will fundamentally change the way we manufacture, market, and deliver goods in the coming era. Recall that the communication/energy matrices of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions were extremely capital intensive and required vertical integration to achieve economies of scale and centralized management to ensure profit margins and secure sufficient returns on investment. Manufacturing facilities have even supersized over the past half century of the Second Industrial Revolution. In China and throughout the developing world, giant factories are churning out products at speeds and in volumes that would have been unheard of half a century ago.
The long-dominant manufacturing mode of the Second Industrial Revolution is likely going to give way, however, at least in part, over the coming three decades. A new Third Industrial Revolution manufacturing model has seized the public stage and is growing exponentially along with the other components of the IoT infrastructure. Hundreds of companies are now producing physical products the way software produces information in the form of video, audio, and text. It’s called 3D printing and it is the “manufacturing” model that accompanies an IoT economy.
Software—often open source—directs molten plastic, molten metal, or other feedstocks inside a printer, to build up a physical product layer by layer, creating a fully formed object, even with moveable parts, which then pops out of the printer. Like the replicator in the Star Trek television series, the printer can be programmed to produce an infinite variety of products. Printers are already producing products from jewelry and airplane parts to human prostheses. And cheap printers are being purchased by hobbyists interested in printing out their own parts and products. The consumer is beginning to give way to the prosumer as increasing numbers of people become both the producer and consumer of their own products.
Three-dimensional printing differs from conventional centralized manufacturing in several important ways:
First, there is little human involvement aside from creating the software. The software does all the work, which is why it’s more appropriate to think of the process as “infofacture” rather than “manufacture.”
Second, the early practitioners of 3D printing have made strides to ensure that the software used to program and print physical products remains open source, allowing prosumers to share new ideas with one another in do-it-yourself (DIY) hobbyist networks. The open design concept conceives of the production of goods as a dynamic process in which thousands—even millions—of players learn from one another by making things together. The elimination of intellectual-property protection also significantly reduces the cost of printing products, giving the 3D printing enterprise an edge over traditional manufacturing enterprises, which must factor in the cost of myriad patents. The open-source production model has encouraged exponential growth.
The steep growth curve was helped along by the plunging costs of 3D printers. In 2002 Stratasys put the first “low-cost” printer onto the market. The price tag was $30,000.1 Today, “high-quality” 3D printers can be purchased for as little as $1,500.2 It’s a similar cost curve reduction to that of computers, cell phones, and wind-harnessing and solar technologies. In the next three decades, industry analysts expect that 3D printers will be equipped to produce far more sophisticated and complex products at ever-cheaper prices—taking the infofacturing process to near zero marginal cost.
Third, the production process is organized completely differently than the manufacturing process of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions. Traditional factory manufacturing is a subtractive process. Raw materials are cut down and winnowed and then assembled to manufacture the final product. In the process, a significant amount of the material is wasted and never finds its way into the end product. Three-dimensional printing, by contrast, is additive infofacturing. The software is directing the molten material to add layer upon layer, creating the product as a whole piece. Additive infofacturing uses one-tenth of the material of subtractive manufacturing, giving the 3D printer a substantial leg up in efficiency and productivity. In 2011, additive manufacturing enjoyed a blistering 29.4 percent growth, besting the 26.4 percent collective historical growth of the industry in just one year.3
Fourth, 3D printers can print their own spare parts without having to invest in expensive retooling and the time delays that go with it. With 3D printers, products can also be customized to create a single product or small batches designed to order, at minimum cost. Centralized factories, with their capital-intensive economies of scale and expensive fixed-production lines designed for mass production, lack the agility to compete with a 3D production process that can create a single customized product at virtually the same unit cost as it can producing 100,000 copies of the same item.
Fifth, the 3D printing movement is deeply committed to sustainable production. Emphasis is on durability and recyclability and using nonpolluting materials. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s vision of “upcycling”—adding value to the product at every stage of its lifecycle—is built into the ecology of production.4
Sixth, because the IoT is distributed, collaborative, and laterally scaled, 3D printers can set up shop and connect anywhere there is a Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) infrastructure and enjoy thermodynamic efficiencies far beyond those of centralized factories, with productivity gains in excess of what was achievable in either the First or Second Industrial Revolution.
For example, a local 3D printer can power his or her infofactory with green electricity harvested from renewable energy onsite or generated by local producer cooperatives. Small- and medium-sized enterprises in Europe and elsewhere are already beginning to collaborate in regional green-electricity cooperatives to take advantage of lateral scaling. With the cost of centralized fossil fuels and nuclear power constantly increasing, the advantage skews to small- and medium-sized enterprises that can power their factories with renewable energies whose marginal cost is nearly free.
Marketing costs also plummet in an IoT economy. The high cost of centralized communications in both the First and Second Industrial Revolutions—in the form of magazines, newspapers, radio, and television—meant that only the bigger manufacturing firms with integrated national operations could afford advertising across national and global markets, greatly limiting the market reach of smaller manufacturing enterprises.
In the Third Industrial Revolution, a small 3D printing operation anywhere in the world can advertise infofactured products on the growing number of global Internet marketing sites at nearly zero marginal cost. Etsy is among the new distributed marketing websites that are bringing together suppliers and users on a global playing field at low marginal cost. Etsy is an eight-year-old company started by a young American social entrepreneur named Rob Kalin. Currently 900,000 small producers of goods advertise at no cost on the Etsy website. Nearly 60 million consumers per month from around the world browse the website, often interacting personally with suppliers.5When a purchase is made, Etsy receives only a tiny commission from the producers. This form of laterally scaled marketing puts the small enterprise on a level playing field with the big boys, allowing them to reach a worldwide user market at a fraction of the cost.
Seventh, plugging into an IoT infrastructure at the local level gives the small infofacturers one final, critical advantage over the vertically integrated, centralized enterprises of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: they can power their vehicles with renewable energy whose marginal cost is nearly free, significantly reducing their logistics costs along the supply chain and in the delivery of their finished products to users.
A 3D PRINTING PROCESS EMBEDDED in an Internet of Things infrastructure means that virtually anyone in the world can become a prosumer, producing his or her own products for use or sharing, employing open-source software. The production process itself uses one-tenth of the material of conventional manufacturing and requires very little human labor in the making of the product. The energy used in the production is generated from renewable energy harvested on-site or locally, at near zero marginal cost. The product is marketed on global marketing websites, again at near zero marginal cost. Lastly, the product is delivered to users in e-mobility transport powered by locally generated renewable energy, again at near zero marginal cost.
The ability to produce, market, and distribute physical goods anywhere there is an IoT infrastructure to plug into is going to dramatically affect the spatial organization of society. The First Industrial Revolution favored the development of dense urban centers. Factories and logistics networks had to cluster in and around cities where there were major rail links that could bring in energy and materials from suppliers upstream and package and deliver finished products to wholesalers and retailers downstream. The workforce had to live within walking distance of their factories and offices or have access to commuter trains and trolleys. In the Second Industrial Revolution, production migrated from dense urban centers to suburban industrial parks, accessible from the exits of the nationwide interstate highway system. Truck transport overtook rail, and workers traveled longer distances to work by automobile.
Three-dimensional printing is both local and global; it is also highly mobile, allowing infofacturers to be anywhere and quickly move to wherever there is an IoT infrastructure to connect to. More and more prosumers will make and use simple products at home. Small- and medium-sized 3D businesses, infofacturing more sophisticated products, will likely cluster in local technology parks to establish an optimum lateral scale. Homes and workplaces will no longer be separated by lengthy commutes. It is even conceivable that today’s overcrowded road systems will be less traveled and that the expense of building new roads will diminish as workers become owners and consumers become producers. Smaller urban centers of 150,000 to 250,000 people, surrounded by a rewilding of green space, might slowly replace dense urban cores and suburban sprawl in a more distributed and collaborative economic era.
The new 3D printing revolution is an example of “extreme productivity.” It is not fully here yet, but as it kicks in, it will eventually and inevitably reduce marginal costs to near zero, eliminate profit, and make property exchange in markets unnecessary for many (though not all) products.
The democratization of manufacturing means that anyone and eventually everyone can access the means of production, making the question of who should own and control the means of production irrelevant, and capitalism along with it.
Three-dimensional printing, like so many inventions, was inspired by science-fiction writers. A generation of geeks sat enthralled in front of their TV screens, watching episodes of Star Trek. In long journeys through the universe, the crew needed to be able to repair and replace parts of the spaceship and keep stocked with everything from machine parts to pharmaceutical products. The replicator was programmed to rearrange subatomic particles that are ubiquitous in the universe into objects, including food and water. The deeper significance of the replicator is that it does away with scarcity itself—a theme we will come back to in part V.
The 3D printing revolution began in the 1980s. The early printers were very expensive and used primarily to create prototypes. Architects and automobile and airplane manufacturers were among the first to take up the new replicating technology.6
This innovation moved from prototyping to customizing products when computer hackers and hobbyists began to migrate into the field. (The termhacker has both positive and negative connotations. While some characterize hackers as criminals, illegally accessing proprietary and classified information, others regard hackers as clever programmers whose contributions benefit the general public. Here and throughout the book the term hacker is being used in the latter sense.)7 The hackers immediately realized the potential of conceiving of “atoms as the new bits.” These pioneers envisioned bringing the open-source format from the IT and computing arena into the production of “things.” Open-source hardware became the rallying cry of a disparate group of inventors and enthusiasts loosely identifying themselves as part of the Makers Movement. The players collaborated with one another on the Internet, exchanging innovative ideas and learning from each other as they advanced the 3D printing process.8
Open-source 3D printing reached a new phase when Adrian Bowyer and a team at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom invented the RepRap, the first open-source 3D printer that could be made with readily available tools and that could replicate itself—that is, it was a machine that could make its own parts. The RepRap can already fabricate 48 percent of its own components and is on its way to becoming a totally self-replicating machine.9
MakerBot Industries, financed by Bowyer, was one of the first enterprises to emerge out of the Makers Movement, with the market introduction of its 3D printer, called Cupcake, in 2009. A succession of more versatile, easier-to-use, and less costly 3D printers followed, with names like Thing-O-Matic in 2010 and the Replicator in 2012. MakerBot Industries makes freely available the specifications for assembling the machine to anyone who would like to make their own, while also selling it to those customers who prefer the convenience of purchase.
Two other trailblazers, Zach “Hoken” Smith and Bre Pettis, created a website called Thingiverse—owned by MakerBot Industries—in 2008. The site is the meeting place for the 3D printing community. The website holds open-source, user-created digital design files licensed under both the General Public Licenses (GPL) and Creative Commons Licenses. (These licenses will be discussed in greater detail in part III.) The DIY community relies heavily on the website as a library of sorts for uploading and sharing open-source designs and for engaging in new 3D printed collaborations.
The Makers Movement took a big step toward the democratization of digitally produced things with the introduction of the Fab Lab in 2005. The Fab Lab, a fabrication laboratory, is the brainchild of the MIT physicist and professor Neil Gershenfeld. The idea came out of a popular course at MIT called “How to Make (Almost) Anything.”
The Fab Lab was born at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms that grew out of the MIT Media Lab with the mission of providing a laboratory to which anyone could come and use the tools to create their own 3D-printed projects. Gershenfeld’s Fab Foundation charter emphasizes the organization’s commitment to open-access, peer-to-peer learning. The labs are outfitted with various types of flexible manufacturing equipment, which includes laser cutters, routers, 3D printers, mini mills, and the accompanying open-source software. Setting up the fully equipped lab costs around $50,000.10 There are now over 70 Fab Labs, most in urban areas in highly industrialized countries, but many, surprisingly enough, are in developing countries where access to the fabricating tools and equipment creates a beachhead for establishing a 3D printing community.11 In remote areas of the world, unconnected to the global supply chain, being able to fabricate even simple tools and objects can greatly improve economic welfare. The great majority of Fab Labs are community-led projects managed by universities and nonprofit associations, although a few commercial retailers are beginning to explore the idea of attaching Fab Labs to their stores—so that a hobbyist can buy the supplies he or she needs and then use the Fab Lab to create the product.12 The idea, says Gershenfeld, is to provide the tools and materials anyone would need to build whatever they can envision. His ultimate goal “is to create a Star Trek-style replicator in 20 years.”13
The Fab Lab is “the people’s R&D laboratory” of the Third Industrial Revolution. It takes R&D and new innovations out of the elite laboratories of world-class universities and global companies and distributes it toneighborhoods and communities where it becomes a collaborative pursuit and a powerful expression of peer-to-peer lateral power at work.
The democratization of production fundamentally disrupts the centralized manufacturing practices of the vertically integrated Second Industrial Revolution. The radical implications of installing Fab Labs all over the world so that everyone can be a prosumer has not gone unnoticed. Again, science-fiction writers were among the first to imagine the repercussions.
In Printcrime, published in 2006, Cory Doctorow described a future society in which 3D printers could print copies of physical goods. In Doctorow’s dystopian society, a powerful authoritarian government makes the 3D printing of physical copies of goods illegal. Doctorow’s protagonist, an early prosumer, is imprisoned for ten years for 3D printing. After serving his prison sentence, the hero realizes that an overthrow of the existing order is best accomplished not by just printing a few products, but rather by printing printers. He proclaims, “I’m going to print more printers. Lots more printers. One for everyone. That’s worth going to jail for. That’s worth anything.”14Fab Labs are the new high-tech arsenals where DIY hackers are arming themselves with the tools to eclipse the existing economic order.
Hackers are just beginning to turn their attention to 3D printing of some of the many components that make up the IoT infrastructure. Renewable energy harvesting technologies are at the top of the list. Xerox is developing a special silver ink that could be substituted for the silicon that is currently used as the semiconductor within photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. The silver ink melts at a lower temperature than plastic, which could allow users to print integrated circuits into plastic, fabric, and film. DIY printing of paper-thin PV solar strips could allow anyone to produce their own solar harvesting technology at an ever-diminishing cost, bringing solar energy a step closer to near zero marginal cost. Xerox’s silver ink process is still experimental, but it is indicative of the new infofacturing possibilities opened up by 3D printing.15
Making 3D printing a truly local, self-sufficient process requires that the feedstock used to create the filament is abundant and locally available. Staples, the office supply company, has introduced a 3D printer, manufactured by Mcor Technologies, in its store in Almere, the Netherlands, that uses cheap paper as feedstock. The process, called selective deposition lamination (SDL), prints out hard 3D objects in full color with the consistency of wood. The 3D printers are used to infofacture craft products, architectural designs, and even surgical models for facial reconstruction. The paper feedstock costs a mere 5 percent of previous feedstocks.16
Other feedstocks being introduced are even cheaper, reducing the cost of materials to near zero. Markus Kayser, a graduate student at the Royal College of Art in London, has invented a Solar Sinter 3D printer that prints glass objects from sun and sand. The Solar Sinter, which was successfully tested in the Sahara Desert in 2011, is powered by two PV panels. It is also equipped with a large lens that focuses the sun’s rays to heat sand to a melting point. The software then directs melted sand to form each layer, creating a fully formed glass object.17
Filabot is a nifty new device the size of a shoe box that grinds and melts old household items made out of plastic: buckets, DVDs, bottles, water pipes, sunglasses, milk jugs, and the like. The ground plastic is then fed into a hopper and into a barrel where it is melted down by a heating coil. The molten plastic then travels through nozzles and is sent through sizing rollers to create plastic filaments which are stored on a spool for printing. An assembled Filabot costs $649.18
A Dutch student, Dirk Vander Kooij, reprogrammed an industrial robot to print customized furniture in a continuous line using plastic material from old refrigerators. The robot can print out a chair in multiple colors and designs in less than three hours. His 3D printer can turn out 4,000 customized chairs a year.19 Other printers of furniture are using recycled glass, wood, fabrics, ceramics, and even stainless steel as feedstock, demonstrating the versatility in recycled feedstocks that can be employed in the new infofacturing process.
If infofacturers are going to print furniture, why not print the building the furniture will be housed in? Engineers, architects, and designers are scrambling to bring 3D-printed buildings to market. While the technology is still in the R&D stage, it is already clear that 3D printing of buildings will reinvent construction in the coming decades.
Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis is a professor of industrial and systems engineering and director of the Center for Rapid Automated Fabrication Technologies at the University of Southern California. With support and financing from the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Khoshnevis is experimenting with a 3D printing process called “contour crafting” to print buildings. He has created a form-free composite-fiber concrete that can be extruded and that is strong enough to allow a printed wall to support itself during construction. His team has already successfully constructed a wall that is five feet long, three feet high, and six inches thick using a 3D printer. Equally important, the viscous material does not clog the machine’s nozzle with sand and particles during the infusion process.
Admitting that this is only the first step, Khoshnevis nonetheless gushed that the printed wall is “the most historic wall since the Great Wall of China.” He added that after 20,000 years of human construction, “the process of constructing buildings is about to be revolutionized.”20
Khoshnevis says that the giant printers will cost a few hundred thousand dollars each—a small price for construction equipment. A new home could be potentially printed at a cost far below standard construction because of the cheap composite materials being used and the additive infofacturing process, which uses far fewer materials and human labor. He believes that 3D-printed building construction will be the dominant industry standard by 2025 around the world.
Khoshnevis is not alone. The MIT research lab is using 3D printing to explore ways to create the frame of a house in one day with virtually no human labor. That same frame would take an entire construction crew a month to put up.21
Janjaap Ruijssenaars, a Dutch architect, is collaborating with Enrico Dini, chairman of Monolite, a U.K.-based 3D printing company. The two Europeans have announced that they will print out six-by-nine-foot frames made of sand and inorganic binder and then fill the frames with fiber-reinforced concrete. They hope to have a two-story building up in 2014.22
Dini and Foster + Partners, one of the world’s largest architectural firms, have teamed up with the European Space Agency to explore the possibility of using 3D printing to construct a permanent base on the moon. The buildings would be printed using lunar soil as the feedstock. The goal is to construct lunar habitats with locally sustainable materials found on the moon in order to avoid the logistical cost of shipping in materials from Earth. Xavier De Kestelier of Foster + Partners says that “as a practice, we are used to designing for extreme climates on Earth and exploiting the environmental benefits of using local, sustainable materials—our lunar habitation follows a similar logic.”23
The plan is to use Dini’s D-Shape printer to pour out the lunar buildings, each of which would take about a week to construct. The buildings are hollow, closed-cell structures that look a little like a bird skeleton. The catenary dome and cellular walls are designed to withstand micrometeoroids and space radiation. The building’s base and inflatable dome would be delivered by spacecraft from Earth. Foster explains that the layers of lunar soil, called regolith, would be printed out by the D-Shape printer and built up around the frame. Foster architects have already used simulated material to construct a 1.5-ton prototype building block. The first lunar building would be printed at the moon’s south pole, which is exposed to ample sunlight.24
While the 3D printing of buildings is in the very early stages of development, it is projected to grow exponentially in the coming two decades as the production process becomes increasingly efficient and cheaper. Unlike conventional construction techniques, where the cost of designing architectural blueprints is high, construction materials are expensive, labor costs are steep, and the time necessary to erect the structures is lengthy, 3D printing is not affected by these factors.
Three-dimensional printing can use the cheapest building materials on Earth—sand and rock, as well as virtually any kind of discarded waste materials, all from locally available sources—thereby avoiding the high cost of traditional building materials and the equally high logistical costs of delivering them on-site. The additive process of building up a structure layer by layer provides a further savings on the materials used in construction. The open-source programs are virtually free, in contrast to the considerable time and expense involved in having an architect draw up blueprints. The building frame is erected with very little human labor compared to traditional construction and can be put up in a fraction of the time. Lastly, the marginal cost of generating electricity to power the 3D printer could approach zero by relying on locally harvested renewable energy, making it conceivable that, at least in the not-too-distant future, a small building could cost little more than what it takes to round up the rocks, sand, recyclable material, and other feedstock nearby.
Whether on the moon or here on Earth, human beings will need transport to get around. The first 3D-printed automobile, the Urbee, is already being field tested. The Urbee was developed by KOR EcoLogic, a company based in Winnipeg, Canada. The automobile is a two-passenger hybrid-electric vehicle (the name Urbee is short for urban electric), which is designed to run on solar and wind power that can be harvested in a one-car garage each day. The car can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.25 If long driving distances are necessary, the user can switch over to the car’s ethanol-powered backup engine.26 Granted, the Urbee is just the first working prototype of the new TIR-era automobile, but like the introduction of Henry Ford’s first mass-produced, gas-powered internal-combustion engine automobile, the nature of the vehicle’s construction and power source is highly suggestive of the kind of future it portends for the economy and society.
Ford’s automobile required the construction of huge centralized factories to accommodate the delivery and storage of materials that went into the car’s assembly. Tooling the assembly line was highly capital intensive and required long runs of the exact same mass-produced vehicles to ensure a proper return on investment. Most people are aware of Ford’s flip response when a customer asked him which color he could choose for the automobile. Ford replied, “Any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”27
The subtractive manufacturing process on the Ford assembly line was highly wasteful, since bulk materials had to be cut and shaved before the final assembly of the automobile. The car itself was made up of hundreds of parts requiring both time and labor to assemble. It then had to be shipped across the country to dealers, again resulting in additional logistical costs. And even though Ford was able to use the new efficiencies made possible by the Second Industrial Revolution to create vertically integrated operations and achieve sufficient economies of scale to provide a relatively cheap vehicle that put millions of people behind the wheel, the marginal cost of producing and using each vehicle never got close to zero—especially when you factor in the price of gasoline.
A 3D-printed automobile is produced with a very different logic. The automobile can be made from nearly free feedstock available locally, eliminating the high cost of rare materials and the costs of shipping them to the factory and storing them on-site. Most of the parts in the car are made with 3D-printed plastic, with the exception of the base chassis and engine.28 The rest of the car is produced in layers, which are “added” one onto another in a continuous flow rather than being assembled together from individual parts, meaning less material, less time, and less labor are used. A six-foot-high 3D printer poured out Urbee’s shell in only ten pieces, with no wasted material.29
Three-dimensional printing does not require huge capital investments to tool the factory floor and long lead times to change production models. Simply by changing the open-source software, each vehicle can be poured and printed to the customized specifications of a single user or batch of users at little additional cost.
Because the 3D printing factory can be located anywhere where it can plug into an IoT infrastructure, it can deliver vehicles locally or regionally for less expense than shipping vehicles across countries from centralized factories.
Finally, the cost of driving a 3D-printed car, using locally harvested renewable energy, is nearly free. The fuel cost for the Urbee is only $0.02 per mile—or one-third the cost of driving a Toyota Prius.30
A MAKERS INFRASTRUCTURE
Until now, the Makers Movement has been more about hackers, hobbyists, and social entrepreneurs playing with new ways to print out specific objects for personal and general use. The movement has been driven by four principles: the open-source sharing of new inventions, the promotion of a collaborative learning culture, a belief in community self-sufficiency, and a commitment to sustainable production practices. But underneath the surface, an even more radical agenda is beginning to unfold, albeit undeveloped and still largely unconscious. If we were to put all the disparate pieces of the 3D printing culture together, what we begin to see is a powerful new narrative arising that could change the way civilization is organized in the twenty-first century.
Think about it. The DIY culture is growing around the world, empowered by the idea of using bits to arrange atoms. Like the early software hackers of a generation ago, who were motivated to create their own software to share new information, DIY players are passionate about creating their own software to print and share things. Many of the things that 3D hobbyists are creating, if put together, make up the essential nodes of a do-it-yourself TIR infrastructure.
The really revolutionary aspect of 3D printing, which will take it from a hobbyist subculture to a new economic paradigm, is the impending “Makers Infrastructure.” This development will spawn new business practices whose efficiencies and productivity take us to near zero marginal costs in the production and distribution of goods and services—easing us out of the capitalist period and into the collaboratist era.
Among the first to glimpse the historical significance of a “Makers Infrastructure” were the local grassroots activists who constituted the Appropriate Technology Movement. The movement began in the 1970s and was inspired by the writing of Mahatma Gandhi, and later E. F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, and—if it’s not too presumptuous—a book I authored calledEntropy: A New World View. A new generation of DIY hobbyists, most of whom were veterans of the peace and civil rights movements, loosely affiliated themselves under the appropriate technology banner. Some preached a “back to the land” ethos and migrated to rural areas. Others remained in the poor, urban neighborhoods of major cities, often squatting and occupying abandoned neighborhood buildings. Their self-proclaimed mission was to create “appropriate technologies,” meaning tools and machines that could be made from locally available resources, that were scaled to steward rather than exploit their ecological surroundings, and that could be shared in a collaborative culture. Their rallying cry was “think globally and act locally,” by which they meant to take care of the planet by living in a sustainable way in one’s local community.
The movement, which started in the industrialized countries of the global North, soon became an even more powerful force in the developing countries in the global South, as the world’s poor struggled to create their own self-sufficient communities at the margins of a global capitalist economy.
Particularly noticeable, at least in hindsight, is that a decade after the Appropriate Technology Movement emerged, a distinctly different movement of young tech-hobbyists came on the scene. These were the geeks and nerds of IT culture who shared a love of computer programming and a passion for sharing software in collaborative learning communities. They made up the Free Software Movement, whose aim was to create a global Collaborative Commons (that movement will be considered in greater detail in part III). Their slogan was “information wants to be free,” coined by Stewart Brand, one of the few who bridged the Appropriate Technology Movement and hacker culture. (The Whole Earth Catalog, which Brand edited, helped elevate the Appropriate Technology Movement from a niche subculture to a broader cultural phenomenon.) What’s often lost in Brand’s remarks on the software revolution is the rest of the utterance, which he delivered at the first hackers conference in 1984:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.31
Brand saw early on the coming contradiction between intellectual-property rights and open-source access. That contradiction would eventuallyframe the battle between capitalists and collaboratists as the marginal costs of sharing information approached zero.
The Appropriate Technology Movement was decidedly low-tech, interested in both rediscovering and upgrading effective traditional technologies that had been abandoned or forgotten in the rush into the Industrial Age and developing newer technologies—especially renewable energies. They favored the simple over the complex and technology that could be replicated from scratch using local resources and know-how, so as to stay true to the principle of local self-reliance.
The hackers were of a different ilk. They were the young, often brilliant engineers and scientists at the leading edge of the IT revolution—the very epitome of high-tech culture. Their gaze was global rather than local and their community took shape in the social spaces of the Internet.
What the two movements had in common was a sense of shared community and an ethical belief in the value of collaboration over proprietorship and access over ownership.
Now, 3D printing brings these two pivotal movements together, since it is both extremely high tech and appropriate tech. It is, for the most part, employed as an open-source technology. The software instructions for printing objects are globally shared rather than privately held, yet the material feedstocks are locally available, making the technology universally applicable. While 3D printing promotes self-sufficient local communities, the products can be marketed on websites at nearly zero marginal cost and made accessible to a global user base. Three-dimensional printing also bridges ideological borders, appealing to libertarians, do-it-yourselfers, social entrepreneurs, and communitarians, all of whom favor a distributed, transparent, collaborative approach to economic and social life rather than a centralized and proprietary one. 3D printing brings these various sensibilities together. The social bond is the deep abhorrence of hierarchical power and the fierce commitment to peer-to-peer lateral power.
It’s not surprising that 3D printing is catching on in the most advanced industrial economies. While U.S. companies grabbed a quick lead in the new technology, Germany seems poised to catch up in the next several years because its 3D technology is viewed as an infofacturing model tailored for a distributed, collaborative, laterally scaled TIR infrastructure.
Germany is far ahead of the other major industrialized nations in advancing the IoT technology platform for 3D printing to plug into and play. As already mentioned, the country has surpassed the target of producing 20 percent of its electrical power with distributed renewable energy and is projected to generate 35 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020.32 Germany has also converted 1 million buildings to partial green micropower plants in the past ten years. E.ON and other power and utility companies are currently installing hydrogen and other storage technologies across the transmission grid. Deutsche Telekom is testing the Energy Internet in six regions of the country, and Daimler is establishing a network of hydrogen fueling stations across Germany in preparation for the company’s launch of fuel-cell vehicles in 2017.33
Because they can connect into an IoT infrastructure across Germany, 3D printers can take advantage of the efficiencies and productivity potential afforded by the new Internet of Things. This allows German infofacturers to leap ahead of the United States, where 3D printing firms find themselves adrift in an inefficient and outdated Second Industrial Revolution infrastructure whose productivity capacity has long since peaked.
Germany’s small- and medium-sized engineering companies have long been regarded as the best in the world in precision engineering, making them ideally positioned to lead in the advancement of 3D printing. Ten German companies are already out front in the development of 3D printing. EOS and Concept Laser, both based in Bavaria, are among the world-class players.34The German approach to shifting into a TIR infrastructure is both conventional, relying on a top-down implementation of the Internet of Things, and lateral, with local communities transforming their buildings to micropower plants, installing micropower grids, and introducing e-mobility transport.
It is in the developing world, however, that a Makers infrastructure is evolving in its purest form. In poor urban outskirts, isolated towns, and rural locales—where infrastructure is scant, access to capital spotty, at best, and technical expertise, tools, and machinery virtually nonexistent—3D printing provides a desperately needed opportunity for building a TIR Makers infrastructure.
Marcin Jakubowski, a graduate of Princeton University with a doctorate in fusion energy from the University of Wisconsin, is one of a growing number of socially motivated young inventors who are beginning to put together 3D blueprints for creating a TIR Makers infrastructure anywhere in the world. Jakubowski began by asking a rather simple question: What does any community need in the way of materials and machines to create a sustainable and decent quality of life? He and his team, who are impassioned advocates of open-source appropriate technology, have “identified 50 of the most important machines that allow modern life to exist—the tools we use everyday—everything from a tractor to a bread oven to a circuit maker,” to farm, build habitats, and manufacture things.35
The group’s primary focus is on the tools of production. The goal is to create open-source software that can use locally available feedstock—mainly scrap metal—to print all 50 machines, giving every community a “global village construction kit” to make its own TIR society.
Thus far, Jakubowski’s open-source ecology network of farmers and engineers have used 3D printing to make prototypes of 8 of the 50 machines: “bulldozer, rototiller, ‘microtractor,’ backhoe, universal rotor, drill press, a multi-purpose ‘ironworker,’ . . . and a CNC torch table for the precision cutting of sheet metal.”36 All the designs and instructions for 3D-printedmachines are open sourced on the group’s website for anyone to replicate. The team is currently working on the next eight prototype technologies.
Building a modern civilization from “scratch and scrap,” from the ground up, would have been unthinkable a generation ago. While open-source ecology is taking an integrated, systemic approach designed to create an entire ecology of machines for making a modern economy, other 3D printing groups, including Appropedia, Howtopedia, and Practical Action, are serving as repositories for open-source, 3D printing designs that will allow do-it-yourselfers to print a whole range of machines that are essential to build a TIR Makers economy.37
Three-dimensional printing of key tools and machines for farming, building, and manufacturing, by themselves, can do very little. To be useful, they have to be plugged into an electricity infrastructure. The real revolution comes when the 3D Makers Movement connects all the “things” in a 3D Makers economy to an Energy Internet. When that happens, the economic paradigm changes. Connecting 3D-printed things via an Energy Internet gives every community a mini-IoT infrastructure that can reach out nodally and connect contiguous communities across regions.
Microgrids—local Energy Internets—are already being installed in communities in the most remote regions of the world, transforming economic development overnight. In India, where 400 million people, mostly in rural areas, are still without electricity, the microgrid debuted in a big way in July 2012 when the country experienced the worst power blackout in history, leaving 700 million people without electricity. While much of the nation went into panic mode, one tiny village in rural Rajasthan enjoyed business as usual, without as much as a flickering of the lights. The villagers’ newly acquired televisions stayed on, their DVD players worked, their buttermilk machines kept churning, and the fans kept them cool, all thanks to the green microgrid.
Just months earlier, a small start-up company called Gram Power, run by a 22-year-old social entrepreneur named Yashraj Khaitan, a graduate of the University of California, and Jacob Dickinson, a colleague, set up India’s first smart microgrid in the tiny Indian village of Khareda Lakshmipura. The local electricity microgrid is powered by a bank of solar panels connected to a brick substation. Inside the substation are batteries that allow the village to store power during the night or when there is cloud cover. A small computer transmits data back to the company’s offices in Jaipur. Wires on wooden poles transmit the electricity from the substation to scores of homes around the village, providing green electricity for more than 200 residents. Each home is equipped with a smart meter that informs the user how much electricity is being used and what it is costing at different times of the day.38 Green electricity is far less expensive than electricity from India’s national grid, and it eliminates the burning of highly polluting kerosene that is responsible for respiratory and heart diseases common throughout India.
A local mother interviewed by the Guardian described how electricity has transformed the life of the village. She explained that “now the children can study at night. Before, living here was like being in the jungle. Now we feel as though we are actually part of society.”39
Gram Power, which was chosen by NASA as one of the top ten Clean Tech Innovators around the world in 2011, has since worked with ten other villages, installing microgrids, and expects to bring green electricity to an additional 40,000 villagers in 2014.40 It is also looking to other sources of locally available renewable energy, including geothermal heat and biomass. The company is currently negotiating with the Indian government to extend microgrids to 120 additional villages, bringing power to more than 100,000 households.41
Gram Power is one of a slew of new start-up companies fanning out across rural India, helping local villages establish green microgrids to spread electricity. Husk Power Systems is a start-up company based in Bihar State, where 85 percent of the population is without electricity. The company is burning biomass from rice husks to power 90 local power plants. The power plants use microgrids to transfer electricity to 45,000 rural homes. The typical cost of installing a microgrid for a village of a hundred or so homes is as little as $2,500, allowing the community to pay off the investment in just a few years, after which the marginal cost of generating and delivering each additional kilowatt of electricity is nearly zero.42
As local microgrids come online, they also connect with one another, creating regional networks that eventually link up to the national grids, transforming the centralized power structure into a distributed, collaborative, laterally scaled power network. Microgrids are projected to account for more than 75 percent of the revenue for renewable energy generation globally by 2018.43
The proliferation of microgrids in the poorest regions of the developing world, powered by locally generated renewable energy, provides the essential electricity to run 3D printers, which can produce the tools and machinery needed to establish self-sufficient and sustainable twenty-first-century communities.
A NEO-GANDHIAN WORLD
Watching the transformation taking place in India and around the world, I can’t help but reflect on Mahatma Gandhi’s insight set forth more than 70 years ago. When asked about his economic vision, Gandhi replied, “Mass production, certainly, but not based on force. . . . It is mass production, but mass production in people’s own homes.”44 E. F. Schumacher summarized Gandhi’s concept as “not mass production but production by the masses.”45Gandhi went on to outline an economic model that has even more relevance for India and the rest of the world today than when he first articulated it.
Gandhi’s views ran counter to the wisdom of the day. In a world where politicians, business leaders, economists, academics, and the general public were extolling the virtues of industrialized production, Gandhi demurred, suggesting that “there is a tremendous fallacy behind Henry Ford’s reasoning.” Gandhi believed that mass production, with its vertically integrated enterprises and inherent tendencies to centralize economic power and monopolize markets, would have dire consequences for humanity.46 He warned that such a situation
would be found to be disastrous. . . . Because while it is true that you will be producing things in innumerable areas, the power will come from one selected centre. . . . It would place such a limitless power in one human agency that I dread to think of it. The consequence, for instance, of such a control of power would be that I would be dependent on that power for light, water, even air, and so on. That, I think, would be terrible.47
Gandhi understood that mass production was designed to use more sophisticated machines to produce more goods with less labor and at a cheaper cost. He saw, however, an inherent contradiction in the organizational logic of mass production that limited its promise. Gandhi reasoned that “if all countries adopted the system of mass production, there would not be a big enough market for their products. Mass production must then come to a stop.”48 Like Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Wassily Leontief, Robert Heilbroner, and other distinguished economists, he argued that the capitalists’ desire for efficiency and productivity would result in an unyielding drive to replace human labor with automation, leaving more and more people unemployed and without sufficient purchasing power to buy the products being produced.
Gandhi’s alternative proposal was local production by the masses in their own homes and neighborhoods—what he called Swadeshi. The idea behindSwadeshi was to “bring work to the people and not people to the work.”49 He asked rhetorically, “If you multiply individual production to millions of times, would it not give you mass production on a tremendous scale?”50 Gandhi fervently believed that “production and consumption must be reunited”—what we today call prosumers—and that it was only realizable if most production took place locally and much of it, but not all, was consumed locally.51
Gandhi was a keen observer of the power relations that governed the First and Second Industrial Revolutions. He watched the British industrial machine swarm over the Indian subcontinent, devouring its rich natural resources and impoverishing its citizenry to feed the consumer appetites of a wealthy elite and a growing middle class in Britain. He saw millions of his countrymen languish at the very bottom of a global industrial pyramid that wielded power from the top. It is no wonder he railed against a centralized capitalist system.
Gandhi was equally disenchanted with the Communist experiment in the Soviet Union, which gave lip service to the principle of communal solidarity while exercising an even more rigid centralized control over the industrialization process than its capitalist foes.
Gandhi never consciously articulated the concept that communication/energy matrices determine the way economic power is organized and distributed in every civilization. He intuited, however, that the industrial organization of society—be it under the aegis of a capitalist or socialist regime—brought with it a set of guiding assumptions, including centralized control over the production and distribution process; the championing of a utilitarian concept of human nature; and the pursuit of ever more material consumption as an end in itself. His philosophy, on the other hand, emphasized decentralized economic production in self-sufficient local communities; the pursuit of craft labor over industrial-machine labor; and the envisioning of economic life as a moral and spiritual quest rather than a materialist pursuit. For Gandhi, the antidote to rampant economic exploitation and greed is a selfless commitment to community.
Gandhi’s ideal economy starts in the local village and extends outward to the world. He wrote:
My idea of village Swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independent of its neighbors for its own vital wants, and yet interdependent for many others which dependence is a necessity.52
He eschewed the notion of a pyramidically organized society in favor of what he called “oceanic circles,” made up of communities of individuals embedded within broader communities that ripple out to envelop the whole of humanity. Gandhi argued that
independence must begin at the bottom . . . every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world. . . . This does not exclude dependence on and willing help from neighbours or from the world. It will be a free and voluntary play of mutual forces. . . . In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending circles. Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose center will be the individual. . . . Therefore the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle but will give strength to all within and derive its own strength from it.”53
In championing this vision, Gandhi also distanced himself from classical economic theory. Adam Smith’s assertion that it is in the nature of each individual to pursue his or her own self-interest in the marketplace and that “it is his own advantage, indeed, and not that of the society, which he has in view,” was anathema to Gandhi.54 He believed in a virtuous economy in which the community’s interest superseded individual self-interest and argued that anything less depreciates the happiness of the human race.
For Gandhi, happiness is not to be found in the amassing of individual wealth but in living a compassionate and empathic life. He went so far as to suggest that “real happiness and contentment . . . consists not in the multiplication but, in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants,” so that one might be free to live a more committed life in fellowship with others.55He also bound his theory of happiness to a responsibility to the planet. Nearly a half century before sustainability came into vogue, Gandhi declared that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not enough for every man’s greed.”56
Gandhi’s ideal economy bears a striking philosophical likeness to the Third Industrial Revolution and the accompanying Collaborative Age. His view of self-sufficient village communities joining together and rippling outward into wider oceanic circles that extend to all of humanity mirrors the community microgrids that connect in ever more distributed and collaborative lateral networks in the TIR economic paradigm. His concept of happiness as the optimization of one’s relationships in shared communities rather than the autonomous pursuit of individual self-interest in the marketplace reflects the new dream of quality of life that is the hallmark of a Collaborative Age. Finally, Gandhi’s belief that nature is a finite resource imbued with intrinsic value that requires stewardship rather than pillage fits the new realization that every human being’s life is ultimately judged by the impact of his or her ecological footprint on the biosphere in which we all dwell.
While Gandhi espoused the idea of lateral economic power and understood that the Earth’s environment is itself the overarching community that supports all life on the planet, he was forced to defend his philosophy of local economic power in an industrial era whose communication/energy matrix favored centralized, top-down management of commercial practices and the vertical integration of economic activity. That left him in the untenable position of championing traditional crafts in local subsistence communities that had kept the masses of Indian people mired in poverty and isolation over eons of history.
What Gandhi failed to perceive is that an even deeper contradiction lies at the heart of the capitalist system that would make possible the very distributed and collaborative laterally scaled economy he espoused—that is, the steadfast pursuit of new technologies whose increased efficiencies and productivity are driving marginal costs to nearly zero, making many goods and services potentially free and an economy of abundance a real possibility.
No doubt Gandhi would have been equally surprised to learn that capitalism’s optimum point of ideal productivity at near zero marginal cost would be realized by introducing a new communication technology, a new energy regime, and an accompanying production-and-distribution model that is organized in a distributed and collaborative fashion and scaled peer to peer and laterally, allowing millions of people to become prosumers—not unlike the concept of production by the masses that he envisioned.
Today, the IoT infrastructure provides the means to advance the Gandhian economic vision, lifting hundreds of millions of Indians out of abject poverty and into a sustainable quality of life. Gandhi’s quest for the good economy, brought forward and embedded in the Internet of Things, can serve as a powerful new narrative not only for India, but for emerging nations around the world in search of a just and sustainable future.