Thursday, July 23, 2009

Meta-resources and the future

(As promised some time ago, here's my big post from my personal blog on meta-resources and why they matter. I've updated it a bit from that original post, and as always, corrected egregious typos. This was originally written in 2006, and IMHO the situation has only accelerated.)

For some time now, I've been subscribing to quite a number of mailing lists and blogs that I refer to as ingenuity sites, such as Make: and Craft:, evilmadscientists, AfriGadget, and, of course, reading sites about home made machine tools, machine tools made from old car parts, home made scanning tunneling microscopes, micro CNC equipment and so on. A body'd think I don't have enough to do. :)

But seriously, I've been noticing some interesting commonalities among all these sites.

First, there seems to be a gradual democratization of the ability to manufacture advanced technology. People do surface mount technology in their basement, using a toaster oven for the solder flow machine. I've seen a dozen different ways to make circuit boards, but most of them start from laserprints. One recipe etches the boards in salt water. You can get pretty reasonable circuit design and layout software for free online. A friend of mine tells me that certain types of off-the-shelf Epson inkjet printers with certain off the shelf ink packs, special software, and lots of tinkering, can print crude (and not especially reliable) semiconductor integrated circuits on plain paper. Also interesting (to me, at least) is the book "Instruments of Amplification" wherein the author spells out how to make your own vacuum tubes.

On the mechanical side of things, there are Gingery's books on how to make a full (manual) machine shop from scrap aluminum, as mentioned in the link above. Backyard metal foundries seem to be far more common than one might expect, and the technology level is rising sharply for these hobbyists. Some of them are building computer controlled mills out of what amounts to the guts of a couple old printers and a dremel tool, and using them for some fairly precise, reproducible work. You can now buy such systems as kits, or turn-key for slightly less than a Laserjet 4 laser printer cost in 1996. (And you'd pay for it in dollars that aren't worth as much, too.) Hell, even American Chopper shows, without really meaning to - they make it to be a soap opera, basically - that a small(er) business can buy these sophisticated tools, guys with junior college educations can learn to use them, and produce amazing, professional things. (Okay, I'm leaving that paragraph in, because that's what I wrote in 2006. Since then, however, I've become a lot less of a four-year-college snob. President Obama's focus on junior colleges really put it in perspective for me. I think he's right.)

If I were a large manufacturing corporation, I'd be worried by this. This democratization of sophisticated technology seems like it's going to encourage cottage industry (again, like Orange County Choppers, from American Chopper). Economies of scale will still be in the favor of the big corporations, but where the quality of the product really matters, boutique industry has an advantage. Cottage industry is also not saddled with an ossified bureaucracy, so they can react to markets faster. (Since I originally wrote this in 2006, the best example of ossified bureaucracy stifling product engineering - the United States auto industry - has essentially collapsed. So who knows, this particular problem may be reaching the end of its road.)

Cottage industry also has the advantage of working where there isn't the capital to establish large corporations, in this case the poorest countries in the world.

As a side note, those poorest countries of the world, as cottage industry takes off, have the option of picking and choosing what technologies from the developed world they really want, and there are some interesting choices they can make, since they're starting from closer to scratch than we in the developed world can.

Anyway. The second point that has risen to me out of all this reading is the rise of meta-resources. AfriGadget, MultiMachine, and quite a few others from time to time, frequently use car parts as resources. For the Multimachine folks, engine blocks are a readily available (even in the underdeveloped parts of the world) source of precisely machined, flat, rigid structures, which are absolutely fundamental to building precision tools. Car alternators find themselves repurposed as wind generators fairly regularly. Tires, wheels, shafts, and wheel bearings get remade into carts, engines turn generators and pumps, and there are whole cottage industries built around taking the parts of a bunch of old cars and making a running car out of them.

It's not limited to cars, either. Another site had information on street vendors in India who will fix your cell phone, usually by cannibalizing parts from other phones of the same model. These electronics we in the developed world consider a menace in landfills (all that lead, etc), are repairable as your cost of labor goes down, despite being manufactured with no thought to repairability (or no thought *for* repairability, at least) being made.

Heck, even in the United States, the superabundance of shipping containers that pile up at our port cities are starting to be sold and repurposed as modules to build homes out of. Apparently they work quite well for this.

This rise of meta-resources is fascinating to me. We're always taught to think of resources as *natural* resources, that is, the raw materials we scrape out of the planet. But the things we make out of those raw materials are, themselves, resources, and not just in the sense of recycling them back into the raw materials (IE melting them down) but in their finished states, they can be reused and remade, and, in fact, that meta-resource may be more useful due to some factor of its original manufacture than the raw material. The original use of the resource added value to it which can, itself, be reused.

Why does all this matter? Well, it matters to me, because I write science fiction, and looking into the future and guessing what it might be like is part of my job. It's also interesting in that you can see how the world is changing. People in underdeveloped countries are aware of what they don't have, and they are learning the skills to make what they want, and they are leaping past whole decades of technology to pick and choose from the long chain of technology we in the developed world had to go through step by step, and they're making use of the products they've /already/ bought from the developed world to do it. In some cases, they're deliberately buying the West's garbage /as/ a resource. The ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh are a fine example. (Yes, I'm aware of the appalling environmental and human cost of that operation, but at the same time I respect their ingenuity and meta-resource use. The ship-breaking yards produce 80% of Bangladesh's steel. If Bangladesh had iron ore to mine, does anyone really believe the mining and smelting operations would be any better? And were they in 19th century England and America?)

Finally, it's reassuring to know that, not only is human ingenuity not dead, it is not limited to corporate environments, to engineers and specialists, and so forth. It's reassuring to know that, despite how complex modern technologies have become, individual contribution can, and I think will, make a difference. Perhaps make THE difference.

1 comment:

John Foberg said...

James, great article!
There's tons of really neat stuff available to hobbyist/craft people today. I'm currently into high power rocketry.
One of the cooler things is the availability of cutting edge materials like carbon fiber products (airframe re-inforcement-once used soley on military aircraft and high tech avionics.
There's one amateur rocket group CSXT that managed to put an rocket 70 miles into space.
My prediction is we will soon see a hobbyist surge in hi altitude ballons/aerostats.

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