Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pandora's Millions

Pandora's Millions is the title of a George O. Smith short story. Along with the preceding Special Delivery, it is one of the earlier explorations of an approaching and largely unheralded future; for an even darker take, try Damon Knight's A For Anything.* (The relevant Smith work is The Complete Venus Equilateral and you can find 'em at Amazon via Tam.)

Oh, we haven't quite got Knight's "Gismo" yet, though "listeners-in" could most certainly end up with copies, as Mrs. Channing muses in the Smith yarns. But an ever-growing group of hobbyists have been steadily pushing on with the next best thing -- and possibly the best "next thing" to come along in decades: 3-D printing. If it's small and can be made of plastic, it can be printed while you wait.

As things stand right now, a 3-D printer can't print a copy of itself -- though they're closer to that goal with every day. AR-15 magazines are being developed by many designers. It doesn't stop there: local blogger Shermlock Shomes recently linked to a printable AR-15 lower. That might need some help in the way of reinforcement and threading, but it's one more step. Hacking away from the other direction, CNC machining is working its way down to near-desktop hardware. It's already garage-scale -- and already making happy bangity sounds. CNC laser and plasma cutters will let you cut out anything you can model as a collection of flat sections, too; I've linked in the past to online services that will carve out your design or sell you the interesting things designed by others.

For a lot of basic manufactured items, everything except microchips or light bulbs, the old assembly-line model is already dead; it's just tottering on for now. The future is catching up and it doesn't need a factory at all. And if you can print whatever object you want, you're wealthy in a way no people have ever been before, ever.

The future? One word:

Mostly thermoplastics. Don't like that old lamp, that footstool? Toss 'em in the hopper and print up a spice rack -- or an AR-15 lower. (Thermosetting types are often tougher but single-use).

You'll probably have to rent time on a fancier machine to chew out the metal parts. At least for a few more years.

How you gonna keep 'em down on the farm when they can print out their own ride to town?
* Of course, if you're concerned about a Knight-type collapse, you may find Smith's Lost Art applicable. It's also in the VE collection.


New Jovian Thunderbolt said...

Fred Saberhagen warned us about this. When the printer makes a copy of itself...

It's like that nanobot dust cloud covering the planet, but less micro. BERSERKER

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

See also Cory Doctorow, Printcrime.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Oh, and: I didn't realize The Complete Venus Equilateral was back in print. Sweet.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Ah...never mind. It's not. Durn.

og said...

You can purchase a decent functional used CNC lathe or mill for the cost of a cheap new car. I have seen them so cheap as to be the cost of a cheap used car.

Stereolithography is still a good deal more expensive, but it's getting cheaper all the time.What is making the sea change happen is the combination of homegrown stereolithography in specific materials (think: Wax) and investment casting. This is literally happening now in industry, and is coming to a basement near you soon.

SMS or Sintered metal Stereolithography is already being used in war theaters to make replacement parts for armored vehicles etc. This is the technology we need to be good at.

Ken said...

Shapeways has introduced food-grade ceramics along with the plastics. Wonder how many rounds an AR lower is good for?

Matthew said...

In Smith's (L. Neil type) "Pallas" the "Ngu Departure" is mostly assembled from sheet stampings as I recall.

Wouldn't need a full-on CAD milling machine for that.

WV: gundima - third generation chick with gun

Butch_S said...

Reminds me of Willard E. Hawkins' The Dwindling Sphere.

Roberta X said...

...A short story which is available online.

I must point out that a 3-D printer using thermoplastic, wax or even metal powder to be sintered isn't using up the material, merely reshaping it. "Rinse, wring, use again!"

HTRN said...

As someone who cuts metal for a living, All I have to say is, don't hold your breath. Those STL lowers won't last very long, and there's the issue of dimensional accuracy. There is the sintered metal machines, but they have a coupla major drawbacks - they cost big money(not what you or I consider big money, but what people who buy things like VMCs consider "big money"), and make sand casting look like a forging - the surface finish is terrible. So while there has been some improvements, I don't see that big a difference from the STL machines of 20 years ago to make me think we're going to see the "print anything you want" idea anytime soon - not that it's likely to exist outside of hardcore hobbiests.

Hobby grade CNC has gotten to the point where you can buy a new small CNC mill for the cost of a good used car(Tormach springs to mind, but Littlemachineshop has a Chinese made mill for 5 grand), and even the big machine tool builders have gotten in on the act - They realized that they can sell alot more small machines to guys wanting to start a manufacturing business in their garage - some even run on single phase power.