From Big to Small: Open Fabrication, Modular Production, & Programmable Matter
Let’s start with the auto producer (leading battery maker and logistics data collector) Tesla. Once the Gigafactory is fully operational 500,000 cars will roll out, for the most part, from raw material to finished product. At such scale a Tesla 3 will price at $35,000. So what of cost? Still many of the components will be made elsewhere from suppliers that manufacture with integrated (anti-modular) properietary systems. What if all parts (including productive machinery) were made under one roof, without licensing fees granted by patented and other intellectual property? What then would it cost? Because of trade secrecy for market advantage, such questions can only be guessed based on an understanding of the technologies. (If you can make an educated guestimate, do comment below.) Admitting or embarking as a profitable company to infrigement, obviously, would be unwise.
However, if a determined community of individuals, like Wikispeed or Local Motors, collaborated to reconstruct a Tesla 3 equivalent, it would be counter-productive to punish such groups, as Tesla could potentially learn from the innovations made by dozens of engineers and enthusiasts free of charge. Local Motors has made some foundational steps in that direction, partnering with Cincinnati Incorporated and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to 3D print an electric vehicle called Strati with a 44 hour print time.
Returning to Tesla, the employment of 6500 people to operate the Gigafactory and associated roles will soon become the most costly resource. But what if the factory floor were fully automated ‘flexibly’ so machinery would only need reprograming rather than wholesale scrapping? Not just reprogramming the software associated with the robot, but reprogram the matter to morph into a desired tool. An initial step in the direction of programmable matter (See: Skylar Tibbits, a former Gershenfeld student) begins by making fabricator parts modular, having them swiftly snap on or off — that process too robotically assisted.
Such modular design philosophy is being nurtured at Google’s ATAP, a modern punkish equivalent of Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, headed by the 19th Director of DARPA, Regina E. Dugan. Starting with the modular mobile phone called Project Ara, initially led by former Gershenfeld student Paul Eremenko, it is expected to launch sometime in 2016 at $50 for a basic model. Some of you will recall Buglabs foundational work by Alicia Gibb on a similar concept in 2006; one of the first companies to conceptualize and incorporate open hardware. Alicia is now Executive Director of the Open Source Hardware Association.
BinarySpace hackerspace in South Africa created PLENZA, a 3D printed pint-sized humanoid robot based on PLEN2. Using more affordable 9g motors and a basic plastic extrusion 3D printer, PLENZA will cost 85% less than PLEN2 at around $135. The full sized humanoid, InMoov, can be made for between €1500-€2000 including sensors, motors, and tablet computer. Comparing price of proprietary vs. open source robotics we might begin to estimate the price reductions in the proprietary vs. open source automotive space. One could point to Aldebaran’s Pepper child sized humanoid as being around the same price as InMoov — no assembly required — at around $1650; but this appears as a Rockefellerian tactic to dominate the market and later sell services atop the platform to make up the loss. An enlightened user will, of course, hack the device to have all the programs freebie stylie sharing such exploits on The Pirate Bay or equivalent.
Much of the Internet is dependent on proprietary systems, so it seems wise to simultaneously tackle the hardware space in this area to prevent all tolls. The Raspberry Pi Zero coupled with similarly affordable Wi-Fi hardware could be mass produced to cost even less than $5 each in bulk, with a community of already existing wireless network cooperatives like that of 42,000+ member strong Wlan Slovenija, funds could be crowdsourced to incorporate and iterate the distribution for a more optimized global launch.