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Wednesday, November 26, 2003
I watched a Scientific American program on PBS the other day. Alan Alda goes to MIT and talks about computers. One segment showed computer directed laser (really just a modified printer) cutting sheets of plastic into shapes drawn on a computer screen. The various pieces of plastic then became a bicycle (or at least the frame, pedals and handlebars of a bike, since they hadn't figured out how to make tires, brakes or a chain) and a flash adaptor for a camera (to change the direction from which the flash lit the photo subject in order to prevent "red-eye").

Alda waxed enthusiastic about the future of this particular technology, saying that we would no longer have to go to the store to buy a bike, but could receive the bike design by email and simply print it out after making modifications to suit our own particular needs or tastes. I wouldn't just be purchasing or making "a" bike, I would be making "my" bike.

I really enjoy stuff like this, especially the mechanical engineering contests staged regularly by one particular professor. But the engineers at geek central (and I mean that in a good way - these people are great, and I guess I am a geek wannabe) forgot one thing.

There are three words dreaded by every parent in the world, especially in western nations where Christmas is a big deal. The engineers completely failed to take those words into account.

Some assembly required.

Americans (and this American in particular) will have to become a whole lot more adept at inserting flange A into slot B before this particular technology will migrate to the home. This is in addition to the need to create all sorts of infrastructure to facilitate this type of manufacture. The materials that will be used as the basic building blocks already exist (sheet plexiglass, at this point) but the printers are not generally available.

If the technology does catch on, there are all sorts of fascinating implications. Mass production (and the mostly unionized jobs involved) will shrink even further than it already has, except for sectors making and shipping the materials used in home manufacturing. Products liability law will be in for a rough time. Once the consumer himself is actively involved in the design and manufacture of a product, there will be substantial questions about who is responsible for the inevitable flaws in the design or manufacture of a product.

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