THE DESKTOP FACTORY
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As humans, we are living in an imagined world. A physical reality that we have created and fashioned from our surroundings, much like hyper complex birds creating nests from twigs. The giant, ingenious machines and factories that help bring these objects into being are shrinking at an ever increasing rate. Soon we will be seeing full purpose desktop factories in every household, and the maker revolution is helping move this along.

Millions of hackers and tinkerers from around the world are learning about hardware and manufacturing, realizing the limitless possibilities that are out there. This in turn has led to a wave of new desktop machines that replace the various functions of traditional manufacturing.

3D PRINTING

Everyone already knows about 3D printing. You take some design files, press a few buttons and an hour or so later, you have a cute little plastic model of Yoda or whatever. The current breed of printers are cool for basic manufacturing needs, but they leave a lot to be desired in terms of finish quality, speed and resolution. This obviously will improve in time, and ultimately they will rival what we consider as traditional manufacturing. Imagine, what will happen to countries like China, whose economy is almost entirely reliant on manufacturing and export. What happens when every person can afford a machine that performs all of the same functions, leaving them obsolete?

Creating little plastic trinkets and cases for your electronics projects is really just the tip of the iceberg for this kind of stuff though and there have been some interesting developments for new applications of the 3D printer.

The first is a wider range of materials to print with. There are resin based printers like the LittleRP (http://www.littlerp.com) that allow you to print at slightly finer res than ordinary ABS printers. You also have metal producing 3d printers such as the Aurora Labs S2 that can print steel, brass, bronze and more.

On the horizon are more varied applications, including moves into the medical fields. Professor Lee Cronin from Glasgow University is working on a “chemputer” that takes the basic building blocks of chemistry, allowing end users to concoct and print their own medicines. Can you imagine the absolute shit storm this will kick up when big pharma no longer controls production and distribution of drugs? It also poses interesting questions about what law makers will do once anyone has the potential to self medicate with whatever drug (legal or otherwise) they wish.

Basically 3D printing is going to fuck shit up, big time. Imagine what happens when we can break down the building blocks of life into various inks, so you'd be able to print any food you'd like, human tissue, blood, beauty products, perhaps even oil and various gases?

CNC MILLS

3D Printers are fairly limited in what they can produce right now, and as we discussed, this will be improved in due course, but in the meantime, for finer machine tooling we have desktop CNC mills. One example is the open source $300 Shapeoko (http://www.shapeoko.com) which is capable of finely cutting plastics, metals, hard and soft woods as well as foams and rubber. The Ghost Gunner (https://www.ghostgunner.net/) from Defense Distributed is another open source mill which was promoted on its ability to produce lower receivers for the AR-15, allowing potentially anyone to build their own assault rifles.

ELECTRONICS MANUFACTURING

So with all of the above, we can make just about anything, that is, except for electronic hardware.

All electronics have a few things in common, they all use circuit boards and then on top of them have components such as chips, resistors, capacitors, sockets etc. Until recently it has been out of reach for ordinary folks to make their own circuit boards without buying expensive equipment or using manufacturing services. Now there's the Argentum (http://www.cartesianco.com/argentum), the $1600 machine which claims is the first desktop printer for electronics. On it's website it states, “The Argentum uses inkjet heads to precisely lay down two chemical inks, one on top of the other. When the chemicals mix on the surface of the printing substrate, solid particles of silver form. These silver patterns are then conductive and flexible. The amazing thing about this technique is that it means you can put a conductive layer onto almost anything.” Pretty cool.

So now you have your circuit boards, but you still have to place the components on them to make your hardware work. Don't want to pay tonnes for a service that does this for you? Good news, there's a desktop machine for that too. The awesome open source $300 FirePick (http://hackaday.io/project/963-300-pick-and-place-3d-printer) is a pick and place machine that you can make yourself. The hackaday page by Neil Jansen states their intentions with the project, “We are taking the beginning steps towards a smart appliance that can manufacture electronic circuit boards in a home or office environment. Our machine is able to assemble open-source hardware boards like Arduino and Raspberry Pi accessories, and also has the capability to 3D print. It features an auto-tool changer that allows multiple plastic extruders, and/or multiple SMT vacuum nozzles. Other tools and applications will be available as our product matures.”

THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING

Each of these machines are going to get cheaper, faster, print at higher fidelity and accomodate for more input materials. This is a revolution that is going to transform how we think about consumerism and how we buy from brands. It will question what we think about issues such as intellectual property and copyright. Information will be what people buy instead of products. Just think about the amount of wastage that would be saved in terms of shipping supplies to the manufacturer, the actual manufacturing process, packaging, shipping it back around the world and to your door.

We're already seeing now the ability of 3D printers to build most of the parts to make copies of themselves too. This kind of development has implications for cryptocurrencies because you could have autonomous systems providing services for customers, automatically repairing, upgrading and copying themselves. Couple that with advances in AI and you have the beginnings of self-sustaining, self-replicating artificial life.

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BY NODE