Here's a look at the future of manufacturing and how it applies to community resilience.
A couple of years ago, I designed and built (with a fantastic software team that I hired), a global digital printing system for a new start-up company (HubCast).
BACKGROUND: The printing industry (a $300b + a year industry that produces high end products that you can't produce on your desktop printer) is a classic manufacturing system that is optimize for high volume/low cost production. However, with the introduction of digital presses (like the $300k + HP Indigo), it's possible to produce high-end products in short runs when you need them.
Essentially, the HubCast system takes a printed product you designed digitally on a Web site, routes it to the global printing company closest to where you want it delivered (just-in-time and place), and then monitors the production process for quality/timeliness/etc. As you can imagine, the system eliminates wastage, storage, and transportation costs at a big savings to the customer. So, what does this have to do with community resilience?
The digital printing process I described above is extremely similar to Digital Fabrication -- a process that uses computer controlled machines to print objects in three dimensions in any material (plastic, metal, etc.) you desire. Already, the fabrication equipment necessary to build complex objects/products costs only $20-50 thousand (some systems are in the hundred dollar range) and the costs are plunging. Given the technological trends, it will be possible in the next decade or so to produce nearly any product locally through these local fabricators in a cost competitive way -- some at home and the rest at a local shop. The system like the one I built above would make it possible to take designs you purchase or acquire on a Web site, modify them as you see fit, and then send them to a local fabrication company (or your desktop) nearby for production.
So What Does This Mean?
The shift towards local fabrication and fabrication networks, added to local food/energy/security/etc. completes the transition of barren bedroom communities into resilient communities. It's a 90% solution for communities, where only the most complex and difficult items are globally sourced. It also enables:
- A torrent of crowd-sourced improvements. Rather than a small design team deciding when/how a product is improved, products can be improved by vast global tinkering networks. Further, you can modify it yourself, if you are so inclined. In the not so distant future, buying a mass produced or unmodified product will be seen as a buying a broken/used/antiquated item.
- Self-supply. 21st Century military units (like Marines in the field), with a trailer full of fabrication equipment, will be able to produce nearly anything they need -- from parts to DIY weapons. It takes "make do" to a new level. Capturing and sharing (in real-time) the innovation produced here is going to be a challenge.
- Comparative/competitive advantage. Communities that shift to self-production early will benefit from an ability to not only deal with shocks/disruptions better than global competitors, they will be able to generate wealth faster through cost reduction and commercial exploitation of innovations.