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Can tech skip overlords? Additive manufacturing & small shops

As of today, it takes more energy and resources to make a battery-powered electric vehicle (BEV) than its internal combustion energy counterpart due to the production impact of batteries and the use of coal to produce some of the electricity to charge them.

Even considering the higher impact up-front, studies on the life cycle energy required for electric versus combustion cars state that EVs soon erase the difference as they are driven: it takes between 1.4 and 1.9 years for electric sedans, SUVs, and trucks to have a minor impact than their combustion equals, based on miles traveled in the United States. Overall, their life-cycle impact is only one-third of that of combustion engine cars.

One thing is clear in the ongoing transition from combustion engine vehicles to battery-powered electric ones: the economies of scale and technical know-how required to produce their key components are prohibitive for those dreaming of decentralized manufacturing of high-end vehicles (through, say, local additive manufacturing).

Sustainable, repairable, local high-tech stuff?

Let’s imagine for a moment a world in which our primary purchases, from food to clothing to vehicles and housing, are made on demand with durable materials that can be easily reused or turned into organic waste.

Their embodied energy, or the life-cycle number of resources they need from conception to disposal, is positive as they absorb air pollution, release oxygen and caloric energy used for HVAC, or charge the vehicle/s, appliances, or electronics.

Thanks to an effective decentralization of production, anybody can design or acquire templates that best adapt to the vernacular requirements, then locally or regionally source materials and parts, as well as hire the services or expertise to 3D print and assemble the goods to use, maintain, and improve as their utilization enlighten what can be adapted or improved for both function and design.

Things that make a positive impact are vernacular, cut to function and personal taste, and “know how to age well.” Things have a patina that makes them more appealing over time —the opposite of plastic-shiny, mass-produced commodities with planned obsolescence from the moment they abandon their phthalates-whapped packaging.

A circular economy of things built to last can also compensate for the likely higher up-front costs of local, on-demand production with the benefits of a circular economy that can afford to purchase the hyper-specialized components only produced in a few places and can only reach low cost by applying good-ol’ economies of scale.

Additive printers: beyond economies of scale and planned obsolescence

Are these few paragraphs a part of utopia or mere uninformed, naïve dystopia? For those who believe in the future of additive manufacturing (from artisanal methods to 3D printing adapted to any sector), a more decentralized and sustainable way of producing energy, goods, and food, could create the amount of skilled work to increase prosperity with one simple yet difficult to achieve equation: making stuff that is beautiful, durable, meaningful, and with a bigger utility per investment, but doing so with less material.

Could this Nirvana of tech-friendly (but also tradition-sensitive) decentralized production system arise out of spontaneous generation (like Aristotle thinking that life can arise from nonliving matter), out of the messy technological and societal confusion we live in nowadays, or the potential promoters of such a model are doomed to depend on centralized technological overlords, from producers of strategic components to owners of proprietary algorithms?

The industrial status quo isn’t rosy either, with production models depending on planned obsolescence to sell new units of incremental versions of what tends to be the same product. Or, as predicted by Aldous Huxley in a dystopian Brave New World of social taming by media consumption and Soma drug intake, a throw-away culture departs from any accountability with nature since all it cares about is selling more to keep the engine running. The “hypnopaedia” (the foundation stone for “sleep learning”) dedicates some psalms to what to do with decay. Newly produced things must replace the old ones:

“We always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending.”

In Huxley’s parody, when one character teaches history to students, he states that before Fordism (the real “beginning” of the new civilization), human society was backward and cruel and too reliant on the caprices of inheritance and nurture, putting up with difficulties and making the best out of hard times. There’s no need for freedom, individualism, and choice in a world of narcotized, mass-produced, and socially sanctioned happiness —the very pillars of Enlightenment have succumbed.

Huxley’s ironies depart from the disruption of his time, the production assembly for mass manufacturing, and the origin of modern economies of scale, a paradigm known as Fordism, akin to Frederick Taylor’s “Scientific management.”

Later on, automation and theories of constant improvement, known as just-in-time production or Toyotism, reduced waste and stocks but also decreased the ability of big industries to accommodate sudden shocks capable of damaging the supply chain and international trade. The trade-off of efficiency was a loss of resilience and autonomy across sectors. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how dangerous a lack of redundancy can be in technical industries depending on components and providers across different continents.

Are there other ways to achieve the “kaizen” ideal of continuous improvement without depending on far-away providers subject to geopolitical relations?

Technology, self-reliance, and anti-tech movements

The hypothesis that has often prevailed among the critics of techno-utopianism and cybernetics is that of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who talked about it in an interview with Der Spiegel published after his death. But, in essence, his diatribes against what he called “technicity” (a commoditized human experience where there’s no room for authenticity) are quite like the Unabomber’s Neo-Malthusianism: a more technological environment will ultimately micromanage people’s lives to the point of mental serfdom and engineered conformity.

The Unabomber, a math professor turned-terrorist Ted Kaczynski, dedicated his manifesto to warn against the risk that —according to him— a society too reliant on technical production faces: inertia towards the commodification of experience and, ultimately, of the very essence of living, with no room to homegrown autonomy and experimentation.

Yet what Heidegger and the Unabomber criticize of technology is what some counterculture misfits argued against, though they advocated for using decentralized technology to achieve a more just, exciting, and sustainable world. Steve Jobs would famously give credit to Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog as the Google [meaning a “universal repository” of any human knowledge, instantly accessed, like Vannevar Bush’s Memex concept] of his generation.

Yet the fresh, irreverent underdogs of yesterday, some of them capable of creating new sectors the world wouldn’t have even imagined, turn into institutional power that, if unchecked, could prevent others from developing. Or, as Tim O’Reilly puts it:

“So many technologies start out with a burst of idealism, democratization, and opportunity, and over time, they close down and become less friendly to entrepreneurship, to innovation, to new ideas. Over time, the companies that become dominant take more out of the ecosystem than they put back in.”

Additive vs. subtractive manufacturing

In *faircompanies, we’ve always been curious about quirky, decentralized developments, homebrewing ideas that can, later on, become successful goods and services, from small-scale farming to open-source tools applied to food production, houses or even the very organizational systems that could foster prosperous communitarianism.

Over the years, we’ve checked on houses 3D printed out of local mud or from recycled stuff, but also on proposals of co-living, ideas for democratizing access to housing, lifestyles that try not to get too comfortable with the given conventions, and institutionalized advantages of education and access to generational wealth (or what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural inheritance”).

What challenges prevent other models of production and living from reaching, say, a medium scale (and thus evolving from the scale of farms, neighborhoods, intentional communities, or towns)?

There are two main ways of manufacturing goods with precision: by subtraction, or carving them out of raw materials and thus leaving wasteful remainings (via, for example, CNC cutting and machining); and by addition, or producing and releasing the material on-demand, avoiding waste (via, for example, 3D printing and machining).

How do we rely on others to build things

There are many potential benefits in additive manufacturing, among others producing the needed material when and where is going to be used, therefore avoiding the potential cost and incertitudes of supply-chain disruption like the one we are immersed in.

In the medium term, some experts argue, additive processes of manufacturing could transform the way we design and make industrial products, including vehicle bodies and engines. Could that mean there are other ways of organizing production than the models we’ve seen rising and falling since the end of World War II?

Electric cars have entered the mainstream in the United States. They almost doubled their sales in the first nine months of 2021 from the same period in 2021, in a market dominated by Tesla with over two-thirds of all sales.

Reactions to the public persona of Elon Musk could make us forget that Musk has participated in or led big shifts in online payments and the space industry and has turned Tesla in a few years into a services company with strategic proprietary technology and bigger control over its production than most of its rivals both in the tech and “legacy” car sectors.

Then there’s Elon Musk on Twitter. Being popular and being capable of building things are two separate skills that sometimes coincide and sometimes they don’t. Also, not only small companies and young founders can open new frontiers: mature individuals and old companies, big and small, are capable of moving on, given the right constraints.

The problem of stagnation

And so the story goes: an economic and political crisis can break some important things but also shake up the solidified, entrenched interests that prevent any necessary change from happening. The current multifaceted crisis has elements from the interwar period, from the seventies, and from the 2008 recession.

However, it also coincides with a shared certitude: stasis (or “stagflation”) is reaching its end in several industries, from mobility to housing. Driving through or flying over urban California, for example, won’t give anybody the impression things are changing, yet the inquisitive will certainly notice the things happening in between the cracks of customary interests: electric cars took over the roads; more people avoid sitting in traffic either working more from home or adapting to what makes more sense for them; and backyards are getting more use with accessory units as home studios.

It’s more expensive than ever to live in California, and housing prices are prohibitive to the point that no market correction due to inflation will bring prices down to accommodate the existing demand.

Moreover, a curious visitor or new resident willing to put up with the fact that “moving West” doesn’t resonate with the collective unconscious the way it used to will soon notice issues that go well beyond the politically motivated depiction of San Francisco: homelessness is a very complex issue that cannot be dispatched in a few lines, but there’s a correlation between the cost of living and inequality that some successful places fail to address effectively due to lack experimentation and ambition regarding blatant misery and suffering side by side with prosperity.

One of the economic mottos taught in business schools in the last decades was the inevitable loss of industrial and productive economy jobs in old industrial areas across wealthy countries: history had gone full circle, and the former zeal of old colonial powers, which had strategically kept manufacturing in and around the metropolis, morphed into a rapid scare to abandon any production near consumers to reduce production costs and retirement benefits.

Platforms are not the final destination

As the narrative that new industries were replacing old ones and nothing could be done to prevent macro-scale industrial shifts from happening, industrial work and expertise entered an era of stagnation that affected all sorts of industries, including textiles, construction materials, car and aircraft manufacturing, or electronic equipment.

The old metropolitan centers, or so the story was told, didn’t need to retain jobs that could be performed in lower-cost places and ultimately improved with automation and productivity gains thanks to information technology. Intellectual property, R&D, and strategic positions —this new framework stated— would remain near the companies’ headquarters. Ultimately automation and offshoring also caught up with information technology, and the way we produce things today doesn’t offer the same amount of jobs, nor their former benefits concerning the cost of living, nor similar stability, diminishing prospects of long-term investments or building wealth over time.

Digital decentralization hasn’t lived up to its promise for the vast majority of participants in the so-called gig economy, sometimes seen as one mere step up from the informal economy: any temporary gain of self-employed workers relying on digital platforms as their main source of income is dwarfed over time by hyper-competition among incumbents, an immune reaction by the platform algorithms to keep operating costs in check and avoid the perception of dependability on a certain set of workers.

Old ways of doing things may make sense or not, but sometimes their proposed alternative doesn’t live up to the hype. The big-scale decentralization brought by the Internet didn’t turn most people into assertive participants in the knowledge economy. So offshoring lifetime industrial jobs in favor of low-quality services jobs and self-employment in the gig economy accelerated the switch from perceived stability (and social benefits) to the rat race of hyper-competition in a working environment dominated by private digital platforms.

Learning lessons from the last decades?

There aren’t many “traditional” industries capable of creating whole regional economies around them, from building houses to producing strategic components (new materials, semiconductors), chemicals, agro-alimentary, or manufacturing cars or airplanes, to heavy machinery and ship production.

Some of these industries rely on or benefit from public contracts, international relations, and, in worst-case scenarios, entrenched interests (cronyism, legal but not less crony lobbying, corruption, nepotism, old colonial and post-colonial dynamics of power, etc.). Yet some of the most transformative industries are issued from the collaboration between administrations, universities, and people or companies willing to do things differently.

As the legacy car industry propels its battery-powered car production, most companies face the dilemma of either relying on processes that evolved to make combustion engine cars or learning from more agile, simplified (and automated) approaches such as the one Tesla is trying to implement. Ford, for example, is opening a new hub for the electric version of its iconic F-150 truck in Tennessee and has already announced it plans to produce in-house as many components as it can in the new compound, BlueOval City. The company also convinced South Korea’s battery maker SK On to set up a plant nearby to supply an initial production of about 350,000 trucks per year.

BlueOval City is Ford’s first all-new automotive assembly plant in more than 50 years, and it will need 6,000 workers, a fraction of what a combustion engine plant trying to reach the same production would require. And Ford’s CEO Jim Farley has already announced that the “huge transformation” the car industry is undergoing will require “fewer workers” (or up to 40% less labor).

How good (and autonomous) can local machining be?

The car industry is in the most transformative transition since its inception 150 years ago. The shift is happening much faster in China. However, the United States and the European Union are trying to develop their own supply-chain ecosystem for the sector, which relies on Chinese and other regional providers.

Another shortage, this time in microprocessors mainly produced in Taiwan, adds to the hurdles. Not even the companies that designed their own production paradigm, such as Tesla, are capable of making the most of their crucial components. The company will rely on IDRA Group, an Italian provider, to build their additive manufacturing for the Cybertruck production with a massive printer called Giga Press.

Tesla has been using the Giga Press to decrease the production complexities of their popular Model Y: additive manufacturing on demand is hence up and running in some of the most innovative production plants. Could its popularization and miniaturization bring additive manufacturing to independent producers, sparking a wave of decentralized innovation?

So far, the costs are prohibitive, yet the technologies exist. Nothing but a big up-front investment prevents individuals, groups, or small companies from creating their own high-tech on-demand production assemblies to deliver the modular homes, cars, appliances, and heavy machinery of the future.