Quotulatiousness

April 3, 2014

ESR reviews Jeremy Rifkin’s latest book

Filed under: Economics, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:46

The publisher sent a copy of The Zero Marginal Cost Society along with a note that Rifkin himself wanted ESR to receive a copy (because Rifkin thinks ESR is a good representative of some of the concepts in the book). ESR isn’t impressed:

In this book, Rifkin is fascinated by the phenomenon of goods for which the marginal cost of production is zero, or so close to zero that it can be ignored. All of the present-day examples of these he points at are information goods — software, music, visual art, novels. He joins this to the overarching obsession of all his books, which are variations on a theme of “Let us write an epitaph for capitalism”.

In doing so, Rifkin effectively ignores what capitalists do and what capitalism actually is. “Capital” is wealth paying for setup costs. Even for pure information goods those costs can be quite high. Music is a good example; it has zero marginal cost to reproduce, but the first copy is expensive. Musicians must own expensive instruments, be paid to perform, and require other capital goods such as recording studios. If those setup costs are not reliably priced into the final good, production of music will not remain economically viable.

[...]

Rifkin cites me in his book, but it is evident that he almost completely misunderstood my arguments in two different way, both of which bear on the premises of his book.

First, software has a marginal cost of production that is effectively zero, but that’s true of all software rather than just open source. What makes open source economically viable is the strength of secondary markets in support and related services. Most other kinds of information goods don’t have these. Thus, the economics favoring open source in software are not universal even in pure information goods.

Second, even in software — with those strong secondary markets — open-source development relies on the capital goods of software production being cheap. When computers were expensive, the economics of mass industrialization and its centralized management structures ruled them. Rifkin acknowledges that this is true of a wide variety of goods, but never actually grapples with the question of how to pull capital costs of those other goods down to the point where they no longer dominate marginal costs.

There are two other, much larger, holes below the waterline of Rifkin’s thesis. One is that atoms are heavy. The other is that human attention doesn’t get cheaper as you buy more of it. In fact, the opposite tends to be true — which is exactly why capitalists can make a lot of money by substituting capital goods for labor.

These are very stubborn cost drivers. They’re the reason Rifkin’s breathless hopes for 3-D printing will not be fulfilled. Because 3-D printers require feedstock, the marginal cost of producing goods with them has a floor well above zero. That ABS plastic, or whatever, has to be produced. Then it has to be moved to where the printer is. Then somebody has to operate the printer. Then the finished good has to be moved to the point of use. None of these operations has a cost that is driven to zero, or near zero at scale. 3-D printing can increase efficiency by outcompeting some kinds of mass production, but it can’t make production costs go away.

November 15, 2013

Near-future investment advice – get out of retail clothing businesses

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:19

As Charles Stross makes clear in his most recent blog post, the way we buy clothes will be changing markedly in the near future:

Fabrican is a unlikely-sounding spin-off of the Department of Chemical Engineering, at Imperial College (which in case you’re not familiar with it is one of the top engineering/science colleges in the UK; formerly part of the University of London) — at least, it’s unlikely until you begin thinking in terms of emulsions, colloids, and the physical chemistry of nanoscale objects. It’s basically fabric in a spray can. Tiny fibres suspended in liquid are ejected through a fine nozzle and, as the supernatant evaporates, they adhere to one another. If at this point you’re thinking The Jetsons and spray-on clothing, have a cigar: you’ve fallen for the obvious marketing angle, because if you’re trying to market a new product and raise brand awareness among the public, what works better than photographs of serious-faced scientists with paint guns spray-painting hot-looking models with skin-tight instant leotards? (Note: the technical term for this sort of marketing gambit is, or really ought to be, bukake couture.)

[...]

What are the implications?

If you don’t think printing woven fabric is a big deal, DARPA beg to differ; DARPA is pumping serious money into robot sewing machines. But automating garment assembly from traditional fabric components turns out to be a really hard problem (as this possibly-paywalled New Scientist article on a €23M project to build a sewbot explains). Cloth is slippery, changes shape if you drop it, wrinkles, and has to be stretched and twisted and folded as it is sewn. Note that final word: sewn. If you can print fabric in situ out of fibres in a liquid form, you don’t need to sew components to shape—especially if you can print more than one type and colour of fibre at a time: you can fabricate your “stitches” (inter-layer connections) as part of the process, with minimal hand-finishing to possibly add fasteners (zips or buttons).

Add in a left-field extra: the rapid spread of millimeter wave scanners for airport security. These devices caused a bit of a to-do, earning them the nick-name “perv scanner” in some circles, because of their ability to see through clothing to the skin beneath, in order to check passengers for hidden contraband. But if you put the same machine in a clothes shop, it allows the establishment to obtain extremely accurate measurements of its customers without requiring a strip-tease and manual measurement of all the relevant saggy, lumpy bits and pieces. By use of surface-penetrating wavelengths (possibly high-intensity laser light, or infrared) it may also be possible to automatically distinguish between fatty tissue, musculature, and underlying bone structure. All of which are relevant to the construction of clothing.

So here’s my picture of the chain store of the future. You go in, go to the scanning booth, and do the airport-equivalent thing in a variety of positions — stretch and bend as well as hands-up. You then look at the styles on display on the shop floor, pick out what you like, and see it as it will appear on your own body on an avatar on a computer screen. You buy it, and a machine in the back of the store (or an out-of-town lights out 24×7 robotic garment factory) begins to print it. Some time later — maybe minutes, maybe hours or a day or two — the outfit you ordered comes to you. And it fits perfectly, every time. Some items are probably still off-the-shelf (socks, hosiery, maybe even those cheap tee shirts), but anything major is printed, unless you can afford to go to the really high end and pay a human being to make it for you out of natural fibres. Oh, and the printed stuff doesn’t have seams in places that chafe or bind.

August 28, 2013

Home 3D printers are not quite plug-and-play yet

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:45

Ars Technica‘s Lee Hutchinson finds through actual hands-on experience that “home” 3D printers are still in the “tinkering” stage of development:

I volunteered to put the Printrbot through its paces from the perspective of someone who’s only vaguely aware of home 3D printing as a technology. Before getting my hands on the Printrbot Simple, I’d never even seen a home 3D printer before.

What I found as I dug in was a pit without a bottom — an absolute yawning Stygian abyss of options and tweaking and modifications and endless re-printing. To own and use a 3D printer is to become enmeshed in a constant stream of tinkering, tweaking, and upgrades. It feels a lot like owning a project car that you must continually wrench on to keep it running right. Almost from the moment I got the Printrbot out of the box and printing, I had to start the tweaking. And as a total 3D printing newb, it really soured me on the Printrbot and on the entire concept of low-cost 3D printing in general. “Surely,” I thought, “this frustration is because I’m cutting my teeth on a $299 3D printer intended for early adopters. Surely a higher-end 3D printer is easier!”

And so, in order to see how a higher-end home 3D printer works, I found myself in possession of a much more expensive, much more impressive-looking Makerbot Replicator 2. That device costs $2,200 as opposed to the Printrbot Simple’s $299. The first few things I printed out with the much more expensive device were amazing. It was like leaving the project car in the garage and driving the Lexus to work — you get in, press the button, and go. But then, after perhaps 20 hours of print time, the problems started. Filament would fail to feed. The printer would clog. The printer produced spaghetti instead of actual models, ruining overnight print jobs. I had to replace the plunger-based filament extruder with a new spring-loaded version to overcome a design flaw. I found myself re-leveling the build plate and disassembling and reassembling the extruder way more than I ever had to do with the little Printrbot. All of that was as fun as it sounds.

The Makerbot wasn’t turning out to be an expensive but reliable Lexus. It was turning out to be an expensive and you-better-own-two-because-one-will-always-be-broken 1970s-era Jaguar. It wasn’t just frustrating — it was actually enraging. If I had paid $2,200 out of my own pocket for the Makerbot, I would have been sorely tempted to drive up to New York and fling the thing through the windows of Makerbot’s office.

Update, 30 August: Another thing holding back widespread adoption of home 3D printing is that you need proper designs to use for your 3D printer, and most people are not familiar with CAD or CAD-like design programs. This will continue to be a hindrance for original designs, but MakerBot Digitizer can help you copy physical items:

The Digitizer is about the size of a portable 45 rpm record player — with a laser-shooting accessory attached to the back. MakerBot head honcho Bre Pettis debuted a prototype of the Digitizer at his SXSW keynote address back in March, and now the device is almost ready for sale. The MakerBot Digitizer starts shipping in October.

Here’s how it works. You start with a relatively small object — you’re limited to a maximum weight of 6.6 pounds, and the object has to be less than 8 inches wide and 8 inches tall. Put it on the Digitizer’s turntable, and the device scans it with two “eye-safe” lasers as the turntable spins. After the object has been fully scanned, the Digitizer outputs a 3-D design file. The entire scanning process takes about 12 minutes, according to the MakerBot website — there are 800 individual steps within a full 360-degree rotation.

Of course, this is just a surface scan: hollow objects or objects with interior voids will still need further design processing before you can hit “copy”.

August 10, 2013

3D printing using durable materials

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:32

At TechHive, Kevin Lee reports on a different kind of 3D printing effort:

I sat on a 3D-printed bench.

“Durability” and “strength” are about the last words I would ever associate with 3D printing. But I’m not talking about the small, plastic trinkets you would print out with your MakerBot. This is Emerging Objects, a small fabrication studio in Oakland, CA that’s researching how to 3D-print using materials like wood, ceramic, newspaper, concrete, and salt.

Some 3D-printed art pieces made from newspaper, salt, and maple wood.

Some 3D-printed art pieces made from newspaper, salt, and maple wood.

“Everyone is focusing on machines, and we’re interested in what machines can make,” Emerging Objects co-founder Ronald Rael explained to TechHive. “We saw a limitation in what a machine can make because of the medium, and so we wondered if we could reformulate that media to suit our own architectural agendas to print big.”

As with the report last week about the chap 3D-printing his own Aston Martin replica, the small size of the individual printed units is a bottleneck for producing larger objects. Using a 3D printer to produce key components while using ordinary production methods for larger pieces is the economical way to work right now. That is bound to change as the technology improves, but practical limits on size and cost will continue at the “consumer” end of the 3D printer market.

According to Rael, powder-based 3D printing was one of the very first 3D printing technologies to come into being. It hasn’t really caught on, however, because the machines are so much more expensive than other types of 3D printers. On the other hand, the fused deposition modeling (FDM) method, which lays down thin layers of hot extruded plastic to create objects, has become popular among makers thanks to its accessibility and relative affordability.

All that said, Rael still sees a promising future for powder-based 3D printing.

“We have a [powder] printing technology that I think is very open-ended in terms of the kind of materials that can be in it. Then we have [a FDM] one that’s very closed and that’s the much more popular version,” he explained. “While I like those kinds of printers, [...] I think the big future is in store for powder printing.”

May 24, 2013

Australian police in a lather over 3D printed guns

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:17

In The Register, Simon Sharwood covers the anguished response of police in New South Wales over the availability of “The Liberator”:

The New South Wales Police Force, guardians of Australia’s most-populous state, have gotten themselves into a panic over the Liberator, the 3D-printable pistol.

The Force’s Commissioner Andrew Schipione today appeared at a press conference to denounce the Liberator and urge residents of the State not to download plans for the gun.

Schipione offered this advice after the Force’s ballistics team acquired a 3D printer, downloaded plans for the Liberator and assembled a pair of the pistols.

One, when fired into a resin block said to simulate human flesh, is said to have penetrated to a depth of 17 fatal-injury-inducing centimetres.

The other experienced “catastrophic failure”, as we predicted a couple of weeks ago. [...] That failure didn’t stop Schipione declaring the Liberator a threat to public safety.

To understand why, you need to know that NSW has of late experienced gun violence at rather unusual levels by Australian standards (which means over a year all of Sydney had about half an episode’s worth of gun violence on The Wire). That spate of shootings has led to Operation UNIFICATION, an effort kicking off this weekend that encourages Australians to rat out strike a blow for public safety by informing Police about illegal guns.

May 19, 2013

IP lawyers whine about patents and 3D printing

Filed under: Law, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:52

Cory Doctorow appears to have been plagiarized by real life:

Two minor characters from my novel Makers have apparently come to life and written an article for 3D Printing Industry. These two people are patent lawyers for Finnegan IP law firm, Washington, DC, which I don’t recall making up, but this is definitely a pair of Doctorow villains (though, thankfully, I had the good sense not to give them any lines in the book — they’re far too cliched in their anodyne evil for anyone to really believe in).

These patent lawyers are upset because the evil Makers (capital-M and all!) are working with the Electronic Frontier Foundation to examine bad 3D printing patents submitted to the US Patent and Trademark Office. The problem is that 3D printing is 30 years old, so nearly all the stuff that people want to patent and lock up and charge rent on for the next 20 years has already been invented, and the pesky Makers are insisting on pointing out this inconvenient fact to the USPTO.

This breaks the established order, which is much to be preferred: the UPSTO should grant all the bullshit patents that companies apply for. The big companies can pay firms like Finnegan to file patents on every trivial, stale, ancient idea and then cross-license them to each other, but use them to block disruptive new entrants to the marketplace. The old system also has the desirable feature of arming patent trolls with the same kind of bullshit patents so that they can sue giant companies and disruptive startups alike, and Finnegan can be there to soak up the tens of millions of dollars in legal fees generated by all this activity.

May 11, 2013

The “Liberator” isn’t really a gun … it’s a political theatre prop

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In The Register, Lewis Page points out that the 3D printed “Liberator” isn’t actually much of a gun at all:

People are missing one important point about the “Liberator” 3D-printed “plastic gun”: it isn’t any more a gun than any other very short piece of plastic pipe is a “gun”.

You can take my Liberator ... and shove it

You can take my Liberator … and shove it

Seriously. That’s all a Liberator is: a particularly crappy pipe, because it is made of lots of laminated layers in a 3D printer. Attached to the back of the pipe is a needlessly bulky and complicated mechanism allowing you to bang a lump of plastic with a nail in it against the end of the pipe.

An actual gun barrel is a strong, high quality pipe — almost always made of steel or something equally good — capable of containing high pressure gas. It has rifling down the inside, making it narrow enough that the hard, tough lands actually cut into the soft bullet jacket (too small for the bullet to actually move along, unless it is rammed with massive force). At the back end there is a smooth-walled section, slightly larger, into which a cartridge can be easily slipped.

It’s not much of a gun at all. But as with the old saying about the dancing bear, it’s not how well it dances but that it dances at all. After some 100,000 downloads, the company was requested to take the files offline on Thursday:

April 13, 2013

3D printing, guns, and the hacker ethic

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:22

At The Verge, Joshua Kopstein outlines the state of play in 3D printing, guns, and the hacker subculture:

Cyberculture icon Stewart Brand’s famous notion that “information wants to be free” has been an almost ubiquitous refrain ever since utopian-minded hackers began populating computer networks in the 1980s. Today, 3D printing has given the phrase a whole new meaning, allowing raw data to become real world weapons with the click of a button. Cody R. Wilson, the antagonistic founder of Defense Distributed, is taking that idea to its logical — and hugely controversial — extreme.

Having recently obtained his federal manufacturing license, Wilson hopes to release files for the world’s first fully 3D-printable firearm by the end of this month. His past progress has already thrown a major wrench into America’s resurgent gun control debate, feeding doubts about the efficacy of renewed bans on undetectable firearms. But his reasoning, he claims, isn’t really about the Second Amendment at all — it’s about technological progress rendering the very concept of gun control meaningless.

“It’s more radical for us,” he told Motherboard in “Click Print Gun,” a recent mini-doc about the dark side of the 3D printing revolution. “There are people all over the world downloading our files and we say ‘good.’ We say you should have access to this. You simply should.”

If this all sounds very similar to the good gospel spread by Brand and advanced by progressives and activists like the late Aaron Swartz, you’re hearing it right. But even without the context of Wilson’s operation, firearms and freedom of information share a strangely similar history, an oft-overlooked ideological confluence between hackers and gun advocates that seems to be gaining momentum.

April 1, 2013

The next big thing in 3D printing

Filed under: Humour, Technology — Tags: — Nicholas Russon @ 09:56

ThinkGeek has the latest 3D printing toy:

3D Printing with Play-Doh

Your kid’s first 3D printer!

Why buy things from stores when you can print them yourself? The DIY 3D printer revolution is here, friends, and have we got the entry-level 3D printer for you. It’s the Play-Doh 3D Printer, and it’s loaded with features without a price tag that will set your wallet on fire. Let’s take a quick tour, and then you’ll want to buy one.

First, some quick assembly (of the snap-together variety) and your Play-Doh 3D Printer is almost ready for action. Add 2 C batteries, plug it into your iPad, and launch the free app: iPlay-Doh 3D. Quickly design all sorts of things on the free app and then send them to your Play-Doh 3D Printer. Add up to 3 different colors (they’ll blend like soft serve ice cream) to the top of the Play-Doh 3D Printer and then watch your iPad for directions. The iPlay-Doh 3D app will let you know when the printer is ready for you to start cranking.

March 19, 2013

Sifting through the 3D printing hype

Filed under: Economics, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:06

At The Register, Professor James Woudhuysen looks at the gap between the breathless hype about 3D printing and the current and near-term technological, political, and legal limitations:

3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is a subject that pumps out enthusiasts faster than any real-life 3D printer can churn out products.

In conventional machining, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CADCAM) combine to make products or parts of products by cutting away at, drilling and otherwise manhandling materials. With 3D printing, CADCAM works with product scanners, other bits of IT and special plastics and metals to build products up, whether through the squirts of an inkjet-like device or the sintering of metal powder by lasers or electron beams.

Rather in the same way, America’s somewhat self-conscious Maker Movement — several thousand DIY fans out to revive manufacturing through the web and from the privacy of their own garages — promotes 3D printing with layer upon layer of hype.

It’s true that 3D printing has its good points. Without having to engage in expensive retooling, a 3D printer can easily be reprogrammed to make variations on a basic product — good for dental crowns, for example. 3D printing can also make intricate products with designs that cannot be emulated by conventional, “subtractive” techniques.

[. . .]

Despite all this, those who blithely proclaim that 3D printing brings a revolution to manufacturing make a mistake. 3D printing does not represent a pervasive, durable and penetrating transformation of the dynamics and status of manufacturing. Nor, as The Economist newspaper has proposed, is its emergence akin to the birth of the printing press (1450), the steam engine (1750) or the transistor (1950). There is much to celebrate about 3D printing, and even its too-fervent advocates at least represent a reasonable desire to produce new kinds of things in new kinds of ways. Yet what characterises 3D printing is how, as with other powerful technologies today, it need only barely arrive on the world economic stage for zealots to overrate it, and for others to turn it into an object of fear.

March 3, 2013

3D-printed gun parts

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:19

3D printing is becoming much more interesting every day:

Cody Wilson, like many Texan gunsmiths, is fast-talkin’ and fast-shootin’—but unlike his predecessors in the Lone Star State, he’s got 3D printing technology to help him with his craft.

Wilson’s nonprofit organization, Defense Distributed, released a video this week showing a gun firing off over 600 rounds—illustrating what is likely to be the first wave of semi-automatic and automatic weapons produced by the additive manufacturing process.

Last year, his group famously demonstrated that it could use a 3D-printed “lower” for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle—but the gun failed after six rounds. Now, after some re-tooling, Defense Distributed has shown that it has fixed the design flaws and a gun using its lower can seemingly fire for quite a while. (The AR-15 is the civilian version of the military M16 rifle.)

The lower, or “lower receiver” part of a firearm, is the crucial part that contains all of the gun’s operating parts, including the trigger group and the magazine port. (Under American law, the lower is what’s defined as the firearm itself.) The AR is designed to be modular, meaning it can receive different types of “uppers” (barrels) as well as different-sized magazines.

H/T to Marina Stover for the link.

February 6, 2013

Old and busted: organ transplants. New hotness: 3D organ printing

Filed under: Health, Science, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:03

Matt Peckham on the very near future of organ replacement technology:

Say you need a new trachea, a part of the body we’ve already managed to replicate using stem cells and successfully transplant to a human with late-stage tracheal cancer (I’m not making that up or exaggerating). With a 3D printer and a bunch of stem cell-saturated bio-ink, you might be able to just print that trachea on demand thanks to a new technique that lets you pass human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) through a printer nozzle without destroying them.

A team of researchers from Scotland announced Monday that they’d finally managed to get an inkjet-style printer to craft an organic 3D object. Not an actual organ (well, not yet), but these scientists claim they’ve been able to clear a crucial hurdle: getting hESCs, prized for their ability to become cells of any tissue type, to survive the printing process.

The solution involved rejiggering the way the inkjet-style 3D printer worked, specifically the printing valve, which had to be tweaked to ever-so-gently deposit blobs of hESCs in programmable patterns without compromising the viability and functionality of the cells themselves. The researchers figured out how to do this using two types of bio-inks as well as allow for independent control of the amount in each droplet (with considerable control granularity — down to less than five cells per droplet). The results of the experiment were just published in the bio-science print and online journal Biofabrication.

February 1, 2013

Want a house on the moon? Let’s just 3D print that out for you…

Filed under: Space, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:50

I’ve always wanted a house on the moon:

Architects Fosters and Partners have revealed designs for a building on the Moon that could be constructed from material already on its surface.

An inflatable structure would be transported from Earth, then covered with a shell built by 3D printers.

The printers, operated by robots, would use soil from the Moon, known as regolith, to build the layered cover.

The proposed site for the building is the southern pole of the Moon.

It is designed to house four people and could be extended, the firm said.

In 2010 a team of researchers from Washington State University found that artificial regolith containing silicon, aluminium, calcium, iron and magnesium oxide could be used by 3D printers to create solid objects.

November 22, 2012

Creating Aston Martin DB5s to blow up real good

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:40

3D printing to the (budget) rescue for 007:

Sean Connery first rocked the iconic James Bond Aston Martin DB5 in 1964’s Goldfinger. That vehicle made a reappearance in this year’s blockbuster Skyfall with Daniel Craig at the wheel.

Spoiler alert: Craig’s DB5 meets an untimely end involving flames. You can’t just take a priceless real DB5 and blow it up on film, so the filmmakers turned to a high-tech prop solution: 3D printing.

Voxeljet, a 3D printing company in Germany, created three 1:3 scale models of the rare DB5. Each model was made from 18 separate components that were assembled much like a real car. The massive VX4000 printer could have cranked out a whole car, but the parts method created models with doors and hoods that could open and close.

November 17, 2012

“3D printing will be bigger than the web”

Filed under: Business, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:46

While I’m not quite willing to go as far as Chris Anderson (quoted above), I do think 3D printing is going to be a fantastic development in our very-near future:

Chris Anderson has exited one of the top jobs in publishing — Editor-in-Chief of Wired magazine — to pursue the life of an entrepreneur, making a big bet that 3D printers represent a massive new phase of the industrial revolution.

He spoke at a Wired “Culturazzi” event, at the Marriott Union Square and to sign copies of his latest book: Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

Mr Anderson is always an excellent speaker and his talk covered the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, which he picked out as the invention of the Spinning Jenny in 1764 — a hand powered machine for spinning yarn.

I’d have pinned the start of the Industrial Revolution to the invention of the steam engine and its ability to power large numbers of machines thus enabling the first factories — which represented aggregated labor energy. Scale makes factories viable.

But I can see why Mr Anderson would favor the Spinning Jenny as it was a high-tech machine that was kept in a home — just as 3D printers are home based, completing a neat cycle of history.

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