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Pathfinders: Reprap artists


You know what it's like when you need to buy a tap washer, or a small plastic bracket, and you go to some big hardware chain to find that they will only sell you the product in packs of ten? You know why they're doing it of course, because it's not worth their while to sell them individually. You also know that the other nine you've had to buy are going to end up, either lost in the back of the shed, or lying fresh and un-degraded in landfill for many times the lifetime of the appliance, or even of yourself, your house, your city or your economic system. While you're ruminating on this absurdity, your expensive digital camera fails because of a tiny piece of plastic which must have been deliberately designed to break, something that ought to be replaceable but isn't, except by buying a whole new camera and scrapping the old. Such, you conclude in disgust, are the peculiar and pointless ways of capitalist production and economics. So much energy, so much waste, so little useful result.

 Those with overachieving memories may recall Pathfinders, back in August 2005, excitedly discussing the advent of 3D printers, which heralded the possibility of downloading and printing your very own tap washer, bracket or camera casing. The state of the art back then was less-than-durable wax and plaster, and the cost exorbitant. Well, things have moved on. Now they are working in durable plastic, and last month the Cheltenham Science Festival saw the first 3D printer capable of printing most of the parts necessary to make itself, in other words, a self-replicating machine (New Scientist, June 7). The replicating rapid-prototyper or Reprap, version 1, the 'Darwin', can only do plastic, and the metal struts and electronics still have to be bought off the shelf. It is a far-cry yet from the developers' own dream of creating the first Universal Constructor, an all-singing, all-dancing, cellular-based creation device first proposed by John von Neumann back in the 1940's. The range of things Reprap can make is hardly enough to inspire enthusiasm in anyone but technogeeks and ironmongers, but the next model being planned, the Version 2 Mendel, is expected to be able to print metal parts and electrical circuits too.

 So why all the excitement, over a gizmo that can knock out the odd plastic sprocket or the various parts of another sprocket-making gizmo? There are several reasons. Innovation and design in an industrial manufacturing environment typically requires a retooling for each new model, and expensive one-time only prototype production costs, thus acting as a huge financial drag on the pace of development. The technology of micro-production in so-called fab labs in the last ten years has changed this, yet the cost of the fabrication machines, in tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds, has still been beyond the reach of most designers. Now that 'fabbers' are becoming cheap enough for even home amateurs, the pace of technological design may well accelerate geometrically. And not only that, the design process itself will benefit from Darwinian-type evolution as the ease of try-it-and-see approaches potentially leads to unplanned and unforeseen breakthroughs.

 Another reason why we should be excited is that the designs and specifications for these cheap fabbers are not proprietary but are offered free to anybody under the terms of the GNU General Public Licence, with a view to 'democratising' design and construction. If you want one, you can have one yourself, for just the cost of the materials. This is the first time that the Open Source movement has broken out of the digital world into the concrete world of things, and although 'open source' isn't always the same as 'free gift', the two traditions of cooperative endeavour and free access are so welded together that this development inevitably raises a new and very interesting possibility, a new spectre perhaps to haunt not just Europe but the whole of advanced capitalism.

 The spectre in question is the potential of free or near zero-cost production, the antithesis of the closed market, slayer of scarcity, enemy of poverty, destroyer of profit. And in case anyone thinks that is just fanciful talk, a quick glance at the Reprap homepage at shows that the developers of these machines have not failed to foresee the possible long-term radical implications. Describing Reprap, somewhat immodestly, as a 'project to save the world', the developers claim as their ringing slogan the words 'Wealth without money'. Now there's a socialist idea if ever there was one.

 Even so, the range of likely products issuing forth from this technology is not startling, and socialism will not come about simply because the bottom has suddenly dropped out of the plastic coat hook market. What really needs to happen for capitalism to be under threat is for the machinery to go super-small. An open-source revolution in nanotechnology could quite likely wreck the market system altogether, as it would make possible the production of almost any conceivable item in chemical vats at almost zero-cost, plus the replicators to create them, and most significantly, stupendous amounts of food reprocessed from junk biomass. The difference is that nanotechnology is still hugely expensive, probably decades away from self-replicating machines, and entirely proprietary.

 It shouldn't really need saying, but technology won't save the world by itself, and not even a revolution in production will necessarily change anything unless social attitudes change too. Still, the idea of giving not selling is catching on fast, and it's now spreading beyond the domain of software into the material world. Socialists have long said that there is no need for global scarcity, even with today's technology. But if tomorrow's technology further reinforces the potential of global abundance, perhaps we might finally see the world usher its steam-age economic system into well-deserved retirement.

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