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Homebrew Industrial Revolution, Chapter Five: The Small Workshop, Desktop Manufacturing, and Household Production (second excerpt)

photo of Kevin Carson

Kevin Carson
31st December 2010


[Michel Bauwens has kindly invited me to serialize excerpts from my recently published book The Homebrew Industrial Revolution:  A Low-Overhead Manifesto.  Over the next several weeks, I will post two excerpts from each chapter.]

The Expansion of the Desktop Revolution and Peer Production into the Physical Realm.

3.  Reduced Capital Outlays for Physical Production. As described so far, the open-source model only removes proprietary rents from the portion of the production process—the design stage—that has no material cost, and from the process of aggregating capital.  As Richard Stallman put it, to repeat, it’s about “free speech” rather than “free beer.”  Simply removing proprietary rents from design, and removing all transaction costs from the free transfer of digital designs for automated production, will have a revolutionary effect by itself.  Marcin Jakubowski, of Factor E Farm, writes:

The unique contribution of the information age arises in the proposition that data at one point in space allows for fabrication at another, using computer numerical control (CNC) of fabrication. This sounds like an expensive proposition, but that is not so if open source fabrication equipment is made available. With low cost equipment and software, one is able to produce or acquire such equipment at approximately $5k for a fully-equipped lab with metal working, cutting, casting, and electronics fabrication, assisted by open source CNC….

Jakubowski’s reference to the declining cost of fabrication equipment suggests that the revolution in open-source manufacturing goes beyond the design stage, and promises to change the way physical production itself is organized.

The distinction, not only between being “in business” and “out of business,” but between worker and owner, is being eroded.  The whole concept of technological unemployment assumes the factory paradigm—in which means of production are extremely expensive, and the only access to work for most people is employment by those rich enough to own the machinery—will continue unaltered.  But the imploding price of is making that paradigm obsolete.  Neil Gerschenfeld, like Anderson, draws a parallel between hardware today and software thirty years ago:

The historical parallel between personal computation and personal fabrication provides a guide to what those business models might look like.  Commercial software was first written by and for big companies, because only they could afford the mainframe computers needed to run it.  When PCs came along anyone could become a software developer, but a big company was still required to develop and distribute big programs, notably the operating systems used to run other programs.  Finally, the technical engineering of computer networks combined with the social engineering of human networks allowed distributed teams of individual developers to collaborate on the creation of the most complex software….

Similarly, possession of the means for industrial production has long been the dividing line between workers and owners.  But if those means are easily acquired, and designs freely shared, then hardware is likely to follow the evolution of software.  Like its software counterpart, open-source hardware is starting with simple fabrication functions, while nipping at the heels of complacent companies that don’t believe personal fabrication “toys” can do the work of their “real” machines.  That boundary will recede until today’s marketplace evolves into a continuum from creators to consumers, servicing markets ranging from one to one billion. [Fab]

We already saw, in Chapter Three, what all this meant from the standpoint of investors:  they’re suffering from the superfluity of most investment capital, resulting from the emerging possibility of small producers and entrepreneurs owning their own factories.  From the perspective of the small producer and entrepreneur, the same trend is a good thing because it enables them to own their own factories without any dependency  on finance capital….  Charles Hugh Smith writes:

What I find radically appealing is not so much the technical aspects of desktop/workbench production of parts which were once out of financial reach of small entrepreneurs—though that revolution is the enabling technology—it is the possibility that entrepreneurs can own the means of production without resorting to vulture/bank investors/loans….

In the post-industrial economies of the West and Asia, distribution channels acted as means of wealth creation as well: you want to make money selling books or music, for instance, well, you had to sell your product to the owners of the distribution channels: the record labels, film distributors, book publishers and retail cartels, all of whom sold product through reviews and adverts in the mainstream media (another cartel).

The barriers to entry were incredibly high. It took individuals of immense wealth (Spielberg, et al.) to create a new film studio from scratch (DreamWorks) a few years ago. Now any artist can sell their music/books via the Web, completely bypassing the gatekeepers and distribution channels.

In a great irony, publishers and labels are now turning to the Web to sell their product. If all they have is the Web, then what value can they add? I fully expect filmakers to go directly to the audience via the Web in coming years and bypass the entire film distribution cartel entirely….

The large-scale factory/distribution model is simply no longer needed for many products. As the barriers to owning the means of production and distribution fall, a Renaissance in small-scale production and wealth creation becomes not just possible but inevitable.

Even without the latest generation of low-cost digital fabrication machinery, the kind of flexible manufacturing network that exists in Emilia-Romagna or Shenzen is ideally suited to the open manufacturing philosophy….

The intersection of the open hardware and open manufacturing philosophies with the current model of flexible manufacturing networks will be enabled, [Tom] Igoe argues, by the availability of

Cheap tools. Laser cutters, lathes, and milling machines that are affordable by an individual or a group.  This is increasingly coming true….

And the flexible manufacturing network, unlike the transnational corporate environment, is actively conducive to the sharing of knowledge and designs.

Open manufacturing information. Manufacturers in this scenario thrive on adapting existing products and services. Call them knockoffs  or call them new hybrids, they both involve reverse engineering something and making it fit your market.  Reverse engineering takes time and money.  When you’re a mom & pop shop, that matters a lot more to you.  If you’ve got a friend or a vendor who’s willing to do it for you as a service, that helps. But if the plans for the product you’re adapting are freely available, that’s even better.  In a multinational world, open source manufacturing is anathema. Why would Nokia publish the plans for a phone when they could dominate the market by doing the localization themselves?  But in a world of networked small businesses, it spurs business.  You may not have the time or interest in adapting your product for another market, but someone else will, and if they’ve got access to your plans, they’ll be grateful, and will return the favor, formally or informally….

The conditions of physical production have, in fact, experienced a transformation almost as great as that which digital technology has brought about on immaterial production….  If the digital revolution has caused an implosion in the physical capital outlays required for the information industries, the revolution in garage and desktop production tools promises an analogous effect almost as great on many kinds of manufacturing.  The radical reduction in the cost of machinery required for many kinds of manufacturing has eroded Stallman’s distinction between “free speech” and “free beer.”…

We’ve already seen the importance of the falling costs of small-scale production machinery made possible by the Japanese development of small CNC machines in the 1970s.   That is the technological basis of the flexible manufacturing networks we examined in the last chapter.

When it comes to the “Homebrew” dream of an actual desktop factory, the most promising current development is the Fab Lab.  The concept started with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms.  The original version of the Fab Lab included CNC laser cutters and milling machines, and a 3-D printer, for a total cost of around $50,000.

Open-source versions of the machines in the Fab Lab have brought the cost down to around $2-5,000….

…[A] Fab Lab… can produce virtually anything—especially when coupled with the ability of such machinery to run open-source design files.

Flexible fabrication refers to a production facility where a small set of non-specialized, general-function machines… is capable of producing a wide range of products if those machines are operated by skilled labor. It is the opposite of mass production, where unskilled labor and specialized machinery produce large quantities of the same item…. When one adds digital fabrication to the flexible fabrication mix—then the skill level on part of the operator is reduced, and the rate of production is increased.

Digital fabrication is the use of computer-controlled fabrication, as instructed by data files that generate tool motions for fabrication operations. Digital fabrication is an emerging byproduct of the computer age. It is becoming more accessible for small scale production, especially as the influence of open source philosophy is releasing much of the know-how into non-proprietary hands. For example, the Multimachine is an open source mill-drill-lathe by itself, but combined with computer numerical control (CNC) of the workpiece table, it becomes a digital fabrication device.

It should be noted that open access to digital design—perhaps in the form a global repository of shared open source designs—introduces a unique contribution to human prosperity. This contribution is the possibility that data at one location in the world can be translated immediately to a product in any other location. This means anyone equipped with flexible fabrication capacity can be a producer of just about any manufactured object. The ramifications for localization of economies are profound, and leave the access to raw material feedstocks as the only natural constraint to human prosperity.

Open Source Ecology, based on existing technology, estimates the cost of producing a CNC multimachine with their own labor at $1500.   The CNC multimachine is only one part of a projected “Fab Lab,” whose total cost of construction will be a few thousand dollars.

1.CNC Multimachine—Mill, drill, lathe, metal forming, other grinding/cutting. This constitutes a robust machining environment that may be upgraded for open source computer numerical control by OS software, which is in development.

2.XYZ-controlled torch and router table—can accommodate an acetylene torch, plasma cutter, router, and possibly CO2 laser cutter diodes

3.Metal casting equipment—all kinds of cast parts from various metals

4.Plastic extruder—extruded sheet for advanced glazing, and extruded plastic parts or tubing

5.Electronics fabrication—oscilloscope, circuit etching, others—for all types of electronics from power control to wireless communications.

This equipment base is capable of producing just about anything—electronics, electromechanical devices, structures, and so forth….

Another major component of the Fab Lab, the 3-D printer, sells at a price starting at over $20,000 for commercial versions.  The RepRap, an open-source 3-D printer project, has reduced the cost to around $500….

Automated production with CNC machinery, Jakubowski argues, holds out some very exciting possibilities for producing at rates competitive with conventional industry.

….The digital fabrication production model may be equivalent in production rates to that of any large-scale, high-tech firms.

The concept of a CNC XYZ table is powerful.  It allows one to prepare all the metal, such as that for a CEB press or the boundary layer turbine, with the touch of a button if a design file for the toolpath is available. This indicates on-demand fabrication capacity, at production rates similar to that of the most highly-capitalized industries. With modern technology, this is doable at low cost. With access to low-cost computer power, electronics, and open source blueprints, the capital needed for producing a personal XYZ table is reduced merely to structural steel and a few other components: it’s a project that requires perhaps $1000 to complete….

The CubeSpawn project is also involved in developing a series of modular desktop machine tools.  The first stage is a cubical 3-axis milling machine (or “milling cell”).  The next step will be to build a toolchanger and head changer so the same cubical framework and movement controls can be used for a 3-D printer…. With still other heads, the same framework can be used as a cutting table….

One promising early attempt at distributed garage manufacturing is 100kGarages, which we will examine in some detail in the Appendix.  100kGarages is a joint effort of the ShopBot 3-axis router company and the Ponoko open design network (which itself linked a library of designs to local Makers with CNC laser cutters)….

Kevin Kelly argues that the actual costs of physical production are only a minor part of the cost of manufactured goods.

….material industries are finding that the costs of duplication near zero, so they too will behave like digital copies. Maps just crossed that threshold. Genetics is about to. Gadgets and small appliances (like cell phones) are sliding that way. Pharmaceuticals are already there, but they don’t want anyone to know. It costs nothing to make a pill.

If, as Kelley suggests, the cheapness of digital goods reflects the imploding cost of copying them, it follows that the falling cost of “copying” physical goods will follow the same pattern….

It’s worth repeating one last time:  the distinction between Stallman’s “free speech” and “free beer” is eroding.  To the extent that embedded rents on “intellectual property” are a significant portion of commodity prices, “free speech” (in the sense of the free use of ideas) will make our “beer” (i.e., the price of manufactured commodities) at least a lot cheaper.  And the smaller the capital outlays required for physical production, the lower the transaction costs for aggregating capital, and the lower the overhead, the cheaper the beer becomes as well.

The Microenterprise. We have already seen, in Chapter Four, the advantages of low overhead and small batch production that lean, flexible manufacturing offers over traditional mass-production industry.  The household microenterprise offers these advantages, but increased by another order of magnitude….

Consider, for example, the process of running a small, informal brew pub or restaurant out of your home, under a genuine free market regime.  Buying a brewing vat and a few small fermenters for your basement, using a few tables in a remodeled spare room as a public restaurant area, etc., would require a small bank loan for at most a few thousand dollars. And with that capital outlay, you could probably make payments on the debt with the margin from one customer a day.  A few customers evenings and weekends, probably found mainly among your existing circle of acquaintances, would enable you to initially shift some of your working hours from wage labor to work in the restaurant, with the possibility of gradually phasing out wage labor altogether or scaling back to part time, as you built up a customer base.  In this and many other lines of business (for example a part-time gypsy cab service using a car and cell phone you own anyway), the minimal entry costs and capital outlay mean that the minimum turnover required to pay the overhead and stay in business would be quite modest.  In that case, a lot more people would be able to start small businesses for supplementary income and gradually shift some of their wage work to self employment, with minimal risk or sunk costs.

But that’s illegal. You have to buy an extremely expensive liquor license, as well as having an industrial sized stove, dishwasher, etc.  You have to pay rent on a separate, dedicated commercial building.  And that level of capital outlay can only be paid off with a large dining room and a large kitchen/waiting staff, which means you have to keep the place filled or the overhead costs will eat you alive—in other words, Chapter Eleven. These high entry costs and the enormous overhead are the reason you can’t afford to start out really small and cheap, and the reason restaurants have such a high failure rate.  It’s illegal to use the surplus capacity of the ordinary household items we have to own anyway but remain idle most of the time….  As Roderick Long put it,

In the absence of licensure, zoning, and other regulations, how many people would start a restaurant today if all they needed was their living room and their kitchen? How many people would start a beauty salon today if all they needed was a chair and some scissors, combs, gels, and so on? How many people would start a taxi service today if all they needed was a car and a cell phone? How many people would start a day care service today if a bunch of working parents could simply get together and pool their resources to pay a few of their number to take care of the children of the rest?…

Historically the prevalence of such enterprises has been associated with economic downturn and unemployment….

If, as we saw in earlier chapters, economic downturns tend to accelerate the expansion of the custom industrial periphery at the expense of the mass-production core, such downturns also accelerate the shift from wage labor to self-employment or informal production outside the cash nexus.  James O’Connor described the process in the economic stagnation of the 1970s and 1980s:  “the accumulation of stocks of means and objects of reproduction within the household and community took the edge off the need for alienated labor.”

Labor-power was hoarded through absenteeism, sick leaves, early retirement, the struggle to reduce days worked per year, among other ways.  Conserved labor-power was then expended in subsistence production….   The living economy based on non- and anti-capitalist concepts of time and space went underground:  in the reconstituted household; the commune; cooperatives; the single-issue organization; the self-help clinic; the solidarity group.  Hurrying along the development of the alternative and underground economies was the growth of underemployment… and mass unemployment associated with the crisis of the 1980s.  “Regular” employment and union-scale work contracted, which became an incentive to develop alternative, localized modes of production….

…New social relationships of production and alternative employment, including the informal and underground economies, threatened not only labor discipline, but also capitalist markets….  Alternative technologies threatened capital’s monopoly on technological development…  Hoarding of labor-power threatened capital’s domination of production.  Withdrawal of labor-power undermined basic social disciplinary mechanisms…. [Accumulation Crisis]

Dante-Gabryell Monson speculated on the possibility that the open manufacturing movement was benefiting from the skills of corporate tech people underemployed in the current downturn, or even from their deliberate choice to hoard labor…

So we can expect the long-term structural reduction in employment and the shortage of liquidity, in the current Great Recession or Great Malaise, to lead to rapid growth of an informal economy based on the kinds of household microenterprises we described above.   Charles Hugh Smith, after considering the enormous fixed costs of conventional businesses and the inevitability of bankruptcy for businesses with such high overhead in a period of low sales, draws the conclusion that businesses with low fixed costs are the wave of the future.  Here is his vision of the growing informal sector of the future:

The recession/Depression will cut down every business paying high rent and other fixed costs like a razor-sharp scythe hitting dry corn stalks….

…[H]igh fixed costs will take down every business which can’t remake itself into a low-fixed-cost firm….

For the former employees, the landscape is bleak: there are no jobs anywhere, at any wage….

So this is what I envision happening as the Depression drives standard-issue high-fixed cost “formal” enterprises out of business in the U.S.:

1. The mechanic who used to tune your (used) vehicle for $300 at the dealership (now gone) tunes it up in his home garage for $120—parts included.

2. The gal who cut your hair for $40 at the salon now cuts it at your house for $10.

3. The chef who used to cook at the restaurant that charged $60 per meal now delivers a gourmet plate to your door for $10 each.

4. The neighbor kids’ lemonade stand is now a permanent feature; you pay 50 cents for a lemonade or soft drink instead of $3 at Starbucks….

Appendix

Case Studies in the Coordination of Networked Fabrication and Open Design

1.  Open Source Ecology/Factor e Farm.

2.  100kGarages.

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