Paths out of The Great Stagnation

Thankfully, Thingiverse user Tom Lombardi invented a solution for this age old problem. Enter the Lucky Charms Sifter.

According to Lombardi, the humble-looking 3D printed cup removes over 90 percent of all the cereal, leaving only the marshmallowy goodness. All the user has to do is pour Lucky Charms into the cup and give it a good shake. The precision-printed holes are just large enough for the whole-grain hamster food to fall through, while still retaining the slightly larger marshmallows.

Here is more, hat tip goes to ModeledBehavior.  And via Rob Nelson, here is 3-D printing for pet hermit crab shells.

That all said, 3-D printing is unlikely to end up being a transformative technology; transportation costs for what it can produce are already fairly low.  The printers may in some longer run be cheaper than UPS, truck, and commercial rail, but that’s a moderate savings only, albeit a nice one.

The most likely paths out of TGS — by far — are artificial intelligence and natural gas supply (with some chance of E-Cat).  Smart machines will be most successful in their least romantic, furthest from hard AI, most mundane forms, starting with Siri and Watson.  Natural gas and other energy source developments will likely make North America the cheap energy power for much of the next fifty years; this may improve the quality of our foreign policy as a collateral benefit.

Comments

I disagree about 3d printing never becoming transformative, or at least the reasons why.

Its true that transit costs are low. But that's not the only reason to switch to 3d printing from traditional manufacturing processes.

Setting up machinery to create the kind of things that 3d printing can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Traditional manufacturing is I'll-equipped to handle small runs of object or lots of customization.

Imagine a world where you could not only get an iPod in one of six colors, but also one of six shapes?

There's also a huge convenience factor. Imagine your mechanic tells you he needs to order a part, which he does and then proceeds to print over his lunch break.

There's also a huge advantage in not having to warehouse parts. Imagine an auto parts company with no warehouse. There's no need to keep parts from older of obscure parts in supply...just download them and print.

And of course, you could have one in your home. I buy all sorts of expensive, small run parts for classic cameras. If I could just print them in my home, I could design or download them myself. Not only would it be cheaper, but I wouldn't have to wait a month for these things to arrive from china.

And a product designer wouldn't need to the corporate apparatus necessary to negotiate with a Chinese manufacturer, tool up the factory, produce en masse, ship and deliver. They just need to make a cad file, upload it and sell it to me. It'll create a long tail environment or manufactured goods.

Many experts say that the marginal cost of 3d printing will someday nearly Match that of traditional manufacture. Given the advantages, I don't see how 3d printing could fail to take over much of the work of traditional manufacturing once that happens.

I agree wholeheartedly that 3D printing will be the next step in manufacturing in the near future. This technology is only in it's infancy, and with the right funding and research it will revolutionize all aspects of industry. Imagine the day when new materials are developed to be used for printing, metal ceramic printing? Household application for knives, cook ware. Industrial applications like automotive parts, aviation, tools, and even military. It will create the ability to remotely create almost anything that can be designed by the human imagination. People with the right imagination will be creating the technology of the future out of our home garages and basements again. It has the potential to create another revolution in science and technology with the right direction.

The future is bright for science and technology. We just have to address the cost issue

"Imagine a world where you could not only get an iPod in one of six colors, but also one of six shapes?"

I tried to imagine such a world, but it seemed identical to the one in which we currently live.

Ha! Good point!

You get my drift though.

Imagine you could get an iPod in any color or shape you want for 1/4th the cost. That's a more accurate description.

Yeah, I agree. I think Tyler's easy dismissal of additive manufacturing ("3D printing") betrays his lack of engineering or repair experience. Additive manufacturing is going to be huge for all of the reasons Dan Abrams mentions. I am in a fusion research lab (not E-Cat! A tokamak.) and we spend a small fortune every year on one-off machined parts. The local machine shops hate us (because we need everything yesterday, we have high standards for rejecting a part, and they never get to get experienced with making the part because we only ever order one or a few of them), but love us, because they can charge a lot for the parts. But this is already starting to change, at least for parts that (a) don't have to be very strong, and (b) don't have to go into the vacuum chamber. We have access to a 3D printer and already many of the researchers and grad students (mainly the younger ones) are starting to use it.

All that said, additive manufacturing not going to really have a big impact on society if we can't figure out how to create things that have structural properties at least as good as those of say, cast iron or aluminum or white metal. It's not much good to be able to "print out" a wrench at home if it has the strength of polyethylene. I have confidence that someone will figure it out, though.

You bring out the key point: just because a widget looks correct and can be made cheap and fast isn't enough. Material properties are everything. What range of materials are amenable to be 3D printed? When I last read most printers were using a polymer composite. How much control over heat-resistance, elasticity, strength, weights etc. do we have?

I'm actually (pleasantly) surprised that the material they use has real applications as tokamak parts (which I assume have some pretty rough duties).

The fact that 3D-printing evolved for the prototyping industry meant that color, form and look had a premium over functional material properties. Whether, this is changing I'd be curious to know.

If I recall correctly there are already additive manufacturing methods that use metals and ceramics (although exactly what metals and ceramics and what their properties are I do not know) and that Airbus is pursuing a substantial R&D effort to improve the materials that are amenable to additive manufacturing with the ultimate goal of being able to produce an entire airliner through additive manufacturing methods.

The kinds of equipment you're talking about with regard to ceramics and for metals are selective laser sintering machines (which fuse layers of powered material in a chamber to create a coherent whole.) The properties from this process are somewhat comparative to the parent material (depending on process variables.)

In the 3D printing realm, Objet makes a machine called the Connex, which is capable of creating models with multiple calibrated durometers in a single part. This is impossible with any other technology.

There's also "get it done right now" which can be invaluable to prototypers.

3D printing already is a transformative technology and has been for a while under the name "rapid prototyping".

At current path of energy production, wind+solar together will probably be the most important part of global electricity generation by 2030s or 2040s.

3D printing could only become revolutionary if nobody strangles it with patents and copyrights on things it would produce. These days I'd say it's unlikely, IP rent seeking only gets better and better, making people worse and worse.

Some of the patents on the basic methods of RP technology are expired and ancient. For instance, FDM (seen commercially in Stratasys machines) are the core of the MakerBot system.

Copyright is already an issue and will undoubtedly be a greater concern as RP machines enter the market at large on a more affordable scale.

"The most likely paths out of TGS — by far — are artificial intelligence and natural gas supply (with some chance of E-Cat)."

Agree, except that the last E-Cat demonstration was a total mess (as usual): no independent verification of claims, anonymous "client", poor measurement methods etc.

"Natural gas and other energy source developments will likely make North America the cheap energy power for much of the next fifty years; this may improve the quality of our foreign policy as a collateral benefit."

Eh... if our foreign policy was indeed largely driven by fossil energy factors we would avoid Israel like a plague, for example. So, I doubt much would change if US were to become self-sufficient in energy.

The trail out of the TGS will be blazed by that ace invention, the snurflwangler.

3D printers could be extremely useful in research. Having to make single-digit runs of a custom-designed part is a common task in physics labs. Being able to design them in SolidWorks and just print them out would be an enormous time-saver.

But how does 3D printing compete with something like a precision CNC machine?

It creates different kinds of shapes.

Also, 3D printing has that far away promisse of working well with ceramics, and mixing materials, what mills just can't do.

Currently, 3D printing can create objects that CNC milling cannot create, and requires vastly less operator skill and time. Also, the machine itself is a lot more office friendly.

To make a CNC part, one must create a complex set of toolpaths and modify the part in many cases so that it might be cut at all (a process that requires a great deal of experience and experimentation.) With 3D printing, all you have to do is get a STL file out of your CAD application that you used to design the part in the first place (a two-click process requiring five minutes of explanation in Solidworks) and place it into the build software. A CNC mill is a piece of industrial equipment like nothing you currently have in your office, whereas a commercial 3D printer is more akin to your normal printer.

You think Siri and Watson are good examples of AI that's the "least romantic", "furthest from hard AI" and "most mundane"? I can see "least romantic", I know many people have had their amorous advances rebuffed by Siri, but they both seem magical to laypeople, not mundane, and they're both closer to hard AI than say an automatic chess-player, because they have to deal with a wide range of possible input. The domains of "trivia questions" and "things people do with their smartphones" are huge.

Romantic or otherwise, robots have already transformed war, and will soon transform most other high value/high skill occupations. Astrology, financial advice, and economics are probably immune.

AI has already transformed finance. What do you think HFT is?

I stumbled upon a news article from a site that I generally view as reputable (might have been Forbes?) that was really excited about this E-Cat thing. I found the Wikipedia article on it which was considerably less exciting. Couldn't find much news about it, and while I haven't specifically looked for anything about the hyped October 28 presentation thing, the fact that I haven't come across any information about it through my normal news / blog / twitter sources tells me everything I need to know already.

I love this blog, and its inherent optimism, but sometimes Mr. Cowen gets a little over-credulous. Currently E-Cat. Remember how many posts he made about the swine flu apocalypse? Just sayin'.

The two most obvious paths: legalized Drugs and prostitution. All paths out of TGS are full of policy and ethical implications. Europe and Asia are going to trip when the printing is sophisticated enough for weapons.

E-Cat is nothing more than a joke until it's submitted to any sort of public scrutiny. Since it hasn't been yet, it can't be ruled out, but thus far it has as much credibility as me claiming, right now, that I have a 1MW fusion reactor. What evidence do you have that I have such a reactor? About as much evidence as exists for E-Cat.

3D printing will have a minimal impact on material well-being. The benefit will be the benefit of things like flikr -- great for self-expression, not much use for getting things done or making the world wealthier in any tangible way.

Artists and wanna-be inventors will enjoy their lives more by being able to build some of their ideas more easily.

Just like blogs and tweets are mainly exercises in futile self-expression. Artists and amateur inventors will be happy they can build stuff. The rest of society will ignore this.

The world will be a somewhat better place. We'll have another cool way to entertain ourselves.

I think that's all that's left after you are fed and clothed and housed: entertaining yourself.

"3-D printing is unlikely to end up being a transformative technology"

Myopic, very myopic. I'm an aerospace engineering that works with composites every day in great detail and am very enthusiastic about additive manufacturing. I started following additive manufacturing a couple years ago. Last month I tracked down a report listing the material properties achievable with every form of additive manufacturing. All of them are an order of magnitude below what would be structurally useful in terms of both strength and stiffness. I'm still excited about additive manufacturing. The fundamental technique of additive manufacturing is compelling enough that the incentive is there to develop new methods for synthesizing and manipulating materials that are complementary with it.

I just attended a trade show and ran across several booths for additive manufacturers. In the conversations I had with them, it is clear that additive manufacturing is moving from the prototype and proof-of-concept area to end products. While I can envision many structural applications for additive manufacturing given the right material, the real action in 3D printing at the moment is in the biomedical field. Researchers are making great strides towards printing organs. There is a firm that currently uses additive manufacturing to create a physical representation of a bone fracture from the MRI that can be used by the orthopaedic surgeon to prepare the fixation prior to surgery. Additive manufacturing is a fundamental technology that has wide application across many fields.

I've been reading this site for over a year and have read TGS. I think you are experiencing a sort of hind sight bias. Of course all of the technology looks like it was "easy" to develop, you weren't the one struggling through the development. At the end of weeks, months, and years solving an engineering problem, the solution always seems obvious, even easy. But it required a lot of learning from dead ends to arrive at the actual solution. People don't generally document the dead ends in detail, but when I honestly look back on the process, I'm hard pressed to see how progress would have occurred without the dead ends. The Stanford commencement speech by Steve Jobs touches on this when he discusses "connecting the dots". This applies historically, it never ceases to amaze me what people were working on in the 19th and early 20th century. Technology did not come easy, it required tenacity, focus, and vision. It only seems that it came easy in hind sight.

I'm responsible for the bills and books in our house. Periodically, my wife comes to me with some anxiousness about our finances because she never touches them. I have to sit her down and go over them so that she is confident we are in good shape. Your view of technology is analogous to this. Of course you are anxious about technology development, you're an economist. For those of use that are knee deep in and avid about technology, things are far from stagnant. The metrics you used in TGS for quantifying technological advancement were intriguing, but not definitive. Technological progress is nonlinear, discontinuous, and of a dimensional order that defies the metrics you were employing.

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What are you trying to say?

He doesn't like to repeat himself.

I think he was creating a bit of impromptu performance art, designed to prove via demonstration that disruptive innovations have both positive and negative consequences. He was implicitly saying that the cultural characteristics which make an invention such as the computer or the 3-D printer inherently democratizing also make that same invention inherently vulgarizing!

Well, either that or "fuck you".

It's a sort of proposal. Obviously important.

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If productivity growth has been stagnant, it is because education has stagnated and even gone into reverse. Primary education is a joke in this country, and even too many college "educated" people are really just credentialed. How can we increase productivity with that sort of human capital to work with?

And it's not just unions that's the problem. It's the wicked combination of union control with a dominat culture of "New Math" and "drill and kill" thinking. And we wonder why kids can't think straight. Anyone who comes out of our schools with the ability to think logically or write clearly must have either natural talent for it or unusually educated and involved parents.

The way out of TGS will be a revolution in education. The likes of the Khan Academy will be necessary to bust us out of our funk. And we need Khan Academies in other subjects - vocabulary, grammar, logic, rhetoric, history, philosophy, etc.

But an E-Cat would be nice too. Or I'd settle for mass produced and ubiquitous liquid-fluoride thorium reactors. You can make those as small as 1MW and up to 10 GW, so every market would be served. Google yourself Flibe Energy or the blog Energy From Thorium.

We don't know the 3D printing development spiral and what is the endstate, applications, etc. but all signs point to it as a "disruptive" technology.

Forget E-Cat or other perpetual energy shenanigans, how about a Nation sized battery?

Some pretty decent tech prognostication here:

http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9221298/Why_Microsoft_s_vision_of_the_future_will_really_happen?taxonomyId=128&pageNumber=2

Along with this TGS rebuttal:

Ten years ago, there was no such thing as a multitouch consumer device -- no iPhone, Android phone or anything even remotely like it. The original iPod was brand new, and there was no iTunes store for buying music. There was no Xbox, no YouTube, no Flickr, no Reddit. Google was just a search engine. Gmail, Maps, Docs, Calendar, Voice, Talk, Reader and many other Google services didn't exist. Facebook? Ha! Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school, and even MySpace was still years away. In fact, virtually every aspect of today's consumer electronics scene was nonexistent or even beyond imagining 10 years ago. Almost everything Apple sells right now -- the iPad, iPhone, Siri, Apple TV, iMac, MacBook Air and other products, would have seemed like science fiction in 2001.

That said, I think some of our current 'lowest hanging fruit' is to be found in the potential for radical reform of our enormous rent-seeking sectors of education and health care. Higher education, in particular, seems ripe for a social revolution that could result in dramatically more efficient and lower cost forms of instruction (which is the easy part) and alternate forms of certification/signalling (which is where the social revolution is needed).

"That said, I think some of our current ‘lowest hanging fruit’ is to be found in the potential for radical reform of our enormous rent-seeking sectors of education and health care. Higher education, in particular, seems ripe for a social revolution that could result in dramatically more efficient and lower cost forms of instruction (which is the easy part) and alternate forms of certification/signalling (which is where the social revolution is needed)."

It is being! Look at the massive growth of alternative primary and secondary schools including online-only schools.

That's assinine. The mp3 player had existed for years in 2001. I had a friend who had a watch with one built in in 2001.the tablet computer also existed in 2001, which is why he weasels with 'multi-touch". The iMac was introduced in freaking 1998 and the MacBook air was just a logical, foreseeable trend in laptop design. I'll give him siri and a partial for the iphone, but that's a terrible list

You miss the point. 3d printing isn't about lowering transportation costs, its about being able to drastically reduce the costs of producing one-off or small batch items. This is /huge/.

Providing individuals with the the ability to innovate on this scale, is a key development here. I suspect that sales of Autocad could well take off - if Autocad can produce a reasonable sales model (free 3d printer with every copy of Autocad, anyone?).

I asked Tyler about this a while ago - something along the lines of what happens to capitalism when the means of production resides in every household?

It's a two part question. First, what happens to capitalism if the economies of scale are gone? And the answer is that we simply revert globaliation.

Second, what happens to capitalism if barriers to enter are gone? The answer here is that capitalism starts to work (take a look at the later XIX and earlier XX centuries).

I think that the most important aspects of 3D printing have already been covered by the other commenters. One off manufacturing changes the game and has almost nothing to do with shipping (except for time which can be very valuable). Something i haven't seen mentioned is that parts can be produced better (no welds), with fewer moving parts, and can be designed in ways that cant be practically produced today using standard manufacturing methods. This is huge for aerospace where parts can be produced lighter and stronger. You can also speed up time to implementation of new designs since you don't have to worry about keeping parts available in a warehouse. Currently, products aren't improved because it is too expensive to have 30 different versions of one part. Just don't lose the serial number to the one you have.

Question about the Rossi E-Cat. I noticed the analysis of banks balance sheets using Benford's law. Could a similar analysis be applied to the numbers that Rossi has put out on the E-Cat to see the likelihood he is lying?

Unlikely, as the numbers unlike financial data aren't likely to be power-law distributed.

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The most natural path to prove you were wrong all along is the GOV2.0.

As EDU and govt. is forced to produce 5% productivity gains YOY for 20 years, we'll no longer have the massive drag of public employees on our backs, and everything will be fine.

There are two major areas in which 3d printing changes the game:

1. Developing countries and rural areas where import+shipping *is* prohibitive.
2. High IP items.

The biggest problem with all those charities bringing water to dry Africa is not resource or willingness but that a year or two after the installation of a well and a pump, the pump breaks. The most widespread vehicles in developing countries tend to be particular makes and models of truck, because they are the ones you can buy parts for.

As for high IP - things are currently designed and redesigned by a small group of people, usually employed by the manufacturer. Expand that group to anyone with a PC, and I can put a pattern on the web for an improved version of a part that doesn't stick/fits that other machine/converts a cheaper part to fit instead. The current inability to control music, ebooks, etc becomes the inability to control who can print what. You don't want me to print my own worse version for a tenth of the cost? Sucks for you.

3d printing may not be transformative for the well off in the developed world, which is well-catered-for by the current set of designers and manufacturers. The printing press wasn't transformative for the elite either. At first.

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