Open Source Fabrication & Inventors

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 07/10/2006

So, there’s a certain spirit of engineer, inventor and entrepreneur that just knows how to get things done. While they might not meet with great fanatical success in their lifetimes, they see their vision to completion, and move the state of all humanity forward. Thomas Edison may be the quintessential example, but we have a bunch of them alive right now that repeatedly do the seemingly impossible and unexpected big projects with far fewer resources than governments.

Burt Rutan is probably one of them, winner of the 2004 X-Prize competition to get a reusable manned spacecraft into space with SpaceShipOne. Aside from that, he has designed and brought to fruition a staggering assortment of unconventional aircraft. And it’s not like he’s Boeing or Lockheed or anything. He’s got a small company, but he’s essentially one guy pursuing his dreams. That’s right: plural. This guy does it over and over.

A less well known, but equally outside the box thinker is Graham Hawkes, who is like the Burt Rutan of the sea. He apparently hasn’t warranted a Wikipedia page (maybe I’ll start one), but he should. Perhaps it’s because there’s been no underwater X-Prize. But if there were, the goal would surely be to descend into the trenches of the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The guy designs, builds and pilots his own vehicles, leaving all conventional wisdom behind.

It’s truly the spirit of these two type of engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs who are going to usher in the age of local space exploration, and not the government. As manufacturing on the nano-level becomes more and more feasible, designs that allow a single person little two-year jaunts out to neighboring planets becomes possible. Sure, there’s some closed-system and atrophy stuff that needs to be worked out. But think about how many takers there’s going to be even if its life threatening. Think about all the expeditions to the north and south poles. If all it takes is risking your life for fame and glory, there will be a long line indeed for these suicidal first rides. If the USA doesn’t land a man on Mars pretty soon, someone’s going to land themselves, grandstanding and shaming every nation on Earth. Who knows, they may even make it back.

No matter how many problems there are that need to be worked out, “Open Source” interplanetary spaceflight projects are bound to pop up in the next few years. The wisdom of the crowd, which I’m now learning all about from James Surowiecki, will be brought to bear on the problems, and solutions will be found that will out-think and out-clever any single government agency. Some will be viable as soon as manufacturing capabilities catch up with the designs.

And think about what’s happening right now with any product that is digital. It flows around the planet more-or-less freely. This represents ethereal stuff–entertainment, that lasts more or less for about an hour that has no tangible impact on our lives. But what if that same digital file was the blueprints for the next generation prototyping “printer” that fabricates components on the molecular level. Some day in the much closer future than we may think, such equipment will arrive. And if you think the acceleration of technology was something since the Industrial Revolution, you aint seen nothing yet.

The files passed around a few years from now will be formulas for small, easily fabricated widgets made of plastics with more-or-less the same qualities. A few years after that, the properties of the materials it can produce will vary. After that, it will be able to fabricate integrated circuits and lubricants. Give it a few more years, and the “resolution” will be at the nano-level, making it able to “print” nanotubes, room temperature super-conductors, and materials with hitherto undreamt of qualities.

In the same way today’s new digital freedoms are liberating creative minds, allowing easier discovery and self-marketing for new artists through venues such as MySpace, these “goo-machines” of the future will allow frustrated inventors to rapidly refine and then share their concepts. But their digital files will actually be the instructions to build. There will be a digital trade in “things” with all the same DRM, and monetization issues as today. But there will always be a certain crowd who will always do it out of love.

This may be the ultimate direction of the Open Source movement. Because while today it’s limited to products comprised of electronic bits, it won’t be long before it refers the ability to fabricate every invention ever created by humans. Perhaps 99 out of 100 people will be the consumers, or the “pirates” (we really must come up with new monetization models). But that 1 out of 100 will be the Burt Rutans or Graham Hawkes with a clear vision, and earnest attempts to get there.

And that’s a lot better than the perhaps 1:1000 ratio that probably exists today. I’m just guessing with these figures, but judging by the trends in self-publishing that came with blogging and print-on-demand, I believe there will be an explosion of invention, when you can go direct from visualization to real-things, with such selectable properties as unbreakability, superconductivity, ultimate heat and radiation resistance, and the like.