Friday, April 20, 2012

The Third Industrial Revolution

The Economist has a fluff article out on the digitisation of manufacturing. I'm not sure why. I suppose they had some empty text space to fill.

It's charmingly naive and earnest, quite a bit out of date, and unquestionably gets the future completely wrong. It's not that the article gets any of the salient trends wrong, all of which will come to pass, it's just that they are trending, which hardly ever works. The article's money shot is summarized thusly:
"A number of remarkable technologies are converging: clever software, novel materials, more dexterous robots, new processes (notably three-dimensional printing) and a whole range of web-based services. The factory of the past was based on cranking out zillions of identical products: Ford famously said that car-buyers could have any colour they liked, as long as it was black. But the cost of producing much smaller batches of a wider variety, with each product tailored precisely to each customer’s whims, is falling. The factory of the future will focus on mass customisation—and may look more like those weavers’ cottages than Ford’s assembly line."
All of which are true. I'm convinced that we are within or near the Golden Age of the Material Sciences, which is pumping out not only once-upon-a-time-"exotic" materials like graphene and carbon fiber composites (and no doubt The Graduate's movie advice line would be , not "One Word: Plastics!", but "Carbon!"), but also the metamaterials, not to mention materials that manipulate fundamental forces and particles - converting them into quasiparticles, and perhaps allowing for world-shaking processes such as neutron manipulation.

I mean, we could be in store for not just one game-changing technology, but hundreds. Which, of course, is one thing I fault the article on: lack of imagination.

Take the 3D printer. Undoubtedly it will have an impact. After all, a 3D printer has been used to laser sinter a titanium jaw for prosthetic replacement.  There is a good possibility they will be used to print live organs for transplant. (Although I suspect cloning technology will prove to be better and cheaper).

Point being, there are some applications of 3d printing that will blow us all away, once the print-heads get down to the micro or nano scale and number in the millions, or billions per inch, and banks of them are arrayed into dozen square yard (or meter) print-maws. Print cornucopia juggernauts. Santa Claus machines.

But 3d printers being used for tailor-made retail items? Yawn. Really? Mass customization? Who'd have thought? (eye roll)

I think the most annoying portion of the article is the snide little dig at government the end:
"Governments have always been lousy at picking winners, and they are likely to become more so, as legions of entrepreneurs and tinkerers swap designs online, turn them into products at home and market them globally from a garage."
I suppose it doesn't pay to look to closely at the record of venture capitalists. It might turn out there record is at least as lousy.

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