Software

Peter Cochrane's Blog: An industrial revolution... in your kitchen

Sustainable electronics manufacturing coming to a home near you

Written in a San Jose, California, coffee shop and dispatched to silicon.com via one of six free wi-fi services available.

Without the industrial revolution most of us would not be here, and those who did make it would certainly not be enjoying the health and wealth we now take for granted.

And while that revolution was vital in getting us to today's level of understanding and technical capability, it can now be seen to be planet-unfriendly and unsustainable.

Today's industries represent 'food to waste cycles' that consume and irreversibly destroy materials of limited supply. For example rare earth elements will run critically low within the next decade, and they power our electronics industries.

Without these industries everything would unwind at a terrible cost to humanity. In short: the vast majority of people populating the planet would die with the demise of the IT and communications industries.

The good news is that we have a range of new technologies capable of replacing what we have in a far more symbiotic fashion. These span nanotech to organics - and could eclipse today's electronics without the wholesale destruction of natural resources.

It is also clear that nano-replication and the programming of materials are gradually making electronics manufacturing possible on your kitchen table. Units are now available that allow collaborative design and networking plus production at a distance. For more on this, type the following phrases into any search engine: 3D printer, nano-replication, micro-manufacturing and fab at home.

The website Fab@Home explains all about creating 3D objects right at home. For instance you can see a 3D printer building a robot leg in this YouTube video. If you search YouTube for 'Fab@Home' you'll find even more demonstrations.

Technology of this kind allows production without the irreversible destruction, and expensive distribution, of materials. It also consumes minimal energy, and better still, once perfected, designs can be distributed instantly worldwide.

At the amusing end of the scale we have 3D printers making better (or replacement) components for themselves, and of course local self-replication. This means you could buy a 3D printer and make yourself a better one, two or three!

Ironically this is precisely what happened the first time around with the Industrial Revolution, and it is the basic mechanism that powered the evolution of machinery and production.

So are we witnessing the start of 'Industrial Revolution II' where the atoms become the new bits and the open software movement might just be overtaken by an 'open hardware' rival? Only this time we see the potential to create 'food to waste to food cycles' that mirror Mother Nature.

A full symbiosis might even be possible in the best case but even in the worst, the ecological damage we impart will be drastically reduced.

Will this evolution be the last cycle, the last Industrial Revolution? I doubt it! I can see at least another two or three cycles that get us closer to nature, and may even see us overtake her in terms of capability and efficiency.

After all, she is limited by extremely slow and self-limited genetic and selection processes that we can model, speed up and expand.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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