Monday, February 17, 2014

Rebooting the Economy

The last two major car manufacturers are shutting down in my country. Cars produced by the local divisions of Ford and Mitsubishi were well regarded, but financial winds have blown elsewhere, and they are wrapping up operations.

If that was the only thing, I wouldn't be concerned. But the loss of so much top-tier capacity is going to have a ripple effect right down to the manufacturing base. Specialist bolt-making shops, alloy suppliers, robot repairmen, many will loose their largest and most reliable customer, and business will become untenable.

Then the ripples go up again, as the remaining assemblers find they now have to wait weeks for bolts to arrive from overseas, and the quality is different.

Meanwhile, no local car manufacturers will spring up to replace them, primarily due to the enormous cost of proving a vehicle crash-safe and compliant with all regulations, creating enormous entry barriers to anyone not already a multinational.

Don't worry, I'm going to propose a solution. First, lets lay out the problem:

The essential issue is that taking out the middle piece of the consumer cycle means that Australia is now a nation that produces incredible amounts of mineral ore (and base alloys) and is filled with insatiable consumers, but the middle step is to send billions of tonnes of metal overseas to have it refined, worked, forged, stamped, bent, folded, milled, drilled, ground, assembled, packed, and then sent back. Then we unpack it, put it into our mining machines, and the cycle repeats.

If only we had some kind of magic box where you could pour metal powder into the top and fully formed parts come out of a slot at the bottom. Then we wouldn't have to round-trip every kilo of material and lose out on the best part of the journey.

Oh, wait, we do.

From Dust to 3D Printed Gold Jewelry

Hey, if that worked... how about "if only we had a magic box that could make entire cars?"

Well, it's bigger than a matchbox.

OK, that's not bad, although I probably should have been more specific about the size.

I'm not going to waffle on about the benefits of 3D printing... that's been done. What I will point out is that if we've just decimated our traditional manufacturing industries, we have lots of experts in the art of metal who could be at home, building internet cottage businesses around endless bespoke customization (and teaming up with their local artists to do so) and fuelled by abundant local raw materials.

You know, "Middle Class" stuff. I hear it was popular during Victorian times.

The obvious way to accomplish that is to start handing out on 'semi-permanent loan' 3D printers to anyone with the skills to operate one, at least in the initial phases. We need a convenience store model running here, not a shopping mall. Let them operate out of their house, with a little counter-front, so you can send your design for print, and walk down ten minutes later to pick up personalized cutlery and a carton of milk.

Of course, the organization required to hand out tens of thousands of 3D printers puts this squarely in government territory. Since the benefits accrue nationally rather than concentrate anywhere specific, no sane commercial entity would consider it.

If you quickly establish a wide pool of expertise in a common 3D platform, then I'm fairly confident you just have to stand back from that point and make sure the new practitioners have a strong legal framework that protects their interests so long as they act in good faith. (Only licenced/verified machines to print safety/emergency gear, kind of thing.)

This is Star-Trek level thinking. Once you have enough identical replicators up and running, you can depend on them to make their own replacement parts, and improvements. Any design investment gets amortized over the whole network.

Distributed technologies have many advantages, especially social, but the big disadvantage is they take a long time to get real traction compared to a centrally-pushed agenda. (especially if they're in competition with one) Why not combine the best of both worlds?

That's the key here. The potential is great. The biggest risk of these new technologies was their chaotic - possibly decimating - impact on manufacturing, but that just happened anyway, and with no replacement.

The lessons of technology show that it doesn't really matter which platform you pick, so long as there is broad compatibility. Skills and software need to transfer easily. If you start with a fractured and incompatible base, you spend the first five years arguing whether VHS or Beta is superior.

We could skip over all that. Straight into a 21st century manufacturing base - distributed, locally advantaged, independant. Then the flood of little boxes on eBay will start going in the other direction.

The Chinese word for "crisis" is actually not the same as for "opportunity". But in English, it increasingly is.

1 comment:

  1. Ooooh.

    I admit I'm yet to get my head around how 3D printing actually works, but this is an enlightening look at a potential application model. It makes me think about ways the technology could be used to address resource disadvantage in the developing world. Iiiiinteresting.