Monthly Archives: April 2012

More uses for 3d printing

3D printers are growing in popularity, with a wide range in price from domestic models to high-end industrial printers. The field is already over-hyped, but there is still room for even more, so here we go.


3D printing is a good solution for production of items in one-off or small run quantity, so restoration is one field that will particularly benefit. If a component of a machine is damaged or missing, it can be replaced, if a piece has been broken off an ornament, a 3D scan of the remaining piece could be compared with how it should be and 3D patches designed and printed to restore the full object.

Creativity & Crafts

Creativity too will benefit. Especially with assistance from clever software, many people will find that what they thought was their small streak of creativity is actually not that small at all, and will be encouraged to create. The amateur art world can be expected to expand greatly, both in virtual art and physical sculpture. We will see a new renaissance, especially in sculpture and crafts, but also in imaginative hybrid virtual-physical arts. Physical objects may be printed or remain virtual, displayed in augmented reality perhaps. Some of these will be scalable, with tiny versions made on home 3D printers. People may use these test prints to refine their works, and possibly then have larger ones produced on more expensive printers owned by clubs or businesses. They could print it using the 3D printing firm down the road, or just upload the design to a web-based producer for printing and home delivery later in the week.

Fashion will benefit from 3D printing too, with accessories designed or downloaded and printed on demand. A customer may not want to design their own accessories fully, but may start with a choice of template of some sort that they customise to taste, so that their accessories are still personalised but don’t need to much involvement of time and effort.

Could printed miniatures become as important as photos?

People take a lot of photos and videos, and they are a key tool in social networking as well as capturing memories. If 3D scans or photos are taken, and miniature physical models printed, they might have a greater social and personal value even than photos.

Micro-robotics and espionage

3D printing is capable of making lots of intricate parts that would be hard to manufacture by any other means, so should be appropriate for some of the parts useful in making small robots, such as tiny insects that can fly into properties undetected.

Internal printing

Conventional 3D printers, if there can be such a thing so early in their development, use line of sight to make objects by building them in thin layers. Although this allows elaborate structures to be made, it doesn’t allow everything, and there are some structures or objects that would be more easily made if it were possible to print internally. Although lasers would be of little use in opaque objects, x-rays might work fine in some circumstances. This would allow retro-fitting too.

Cancer treatment

If x-ray or printing can be made to work, then it may be possible to build heating circuits inside cancers, and then inductive power supplies could burn away the tumours. Alternatively, smart circuits could be implanted to activate encapsulated drugs when they arrive at the scene.

This would require a one-off exposure to x-rays, but not necessarily similarly damaging levels to those used in radiotherapy.

Direct brain-machine links

Looking further ahead, internal printing of circuits or electronic components inside the brain will be a superb means to do interfacing between man and machine. X-rays can in principle be focused to 1nm, easily fine enough resolution to make contacts to specific brain regions. Obviously x-rays are not something that people would want to be exposed to frequently, but many people would volunteer  (e.g. I would) to have some circuits implanted at least for R&D purposes, since greater insights into how the brain does stuff will accelerate greatly the development of biomimetic AI. But if those circuits were able to link parts of the brain to the web for fast thought based access to search, processing, or sensory enhancement, I’d be fighting millions of transhumanists to get to the front of the long queue.

What do solar panels on your roof say about you?

I mostly work from home and since my office is just a short walk from the bedroom, lounge or kitchen, I have started going on short walks round the neighbourhood to avoid becoming fat. I noticed some of my neighbours have covered their south-facing roofs with solar panels.

What image did they convey? Here is a multiple choice:

a) I had some spare cash and wanted to get a big return on my investment and solar panels offer a fantastic return.

b) I had a guy come round promising me lots of cash if I let him put panels on my roof.

c) I hate paying big greedy companies for energy and paying too much taxes, so am very keen to take full advantage when there is a means to get my own back.

d) I really love technology and am keen to demonstrate it.

e) I want everyone to know what a nice person I am looking after the environment.

f) I want to do my bit for the environment and solar panels are a good way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and reduce CO2 emissions.

g) I want my kids to live in a sustainable world and that is far more important than the appearance of my house.

I get the impression that each of the above would have some people ticking them. Some would tick several.

Well, I did have a guy come round offering me cash if he would let me stick panels on my roof too. I sent him away, mainly because I am a not an idiot. I had thought it through long before he came. Let me explain what image solar panels on a roof conjure up in my mind when I see them. And bear in mind that my full-time job is as a futurist and I think systemically about how people will behave over the longer term. Using the same tick list, with alternative answers:

a) I wanted a fantastic return on my investment and I don’t care at all that it is other people with less cash to invest who will pay that high return. So I am  greedy and selfish. As the recession lingers on, some people may be tempted to spray nasty messages on my door or run keys down my car doors or shame me on social networking sites, and maybe my family will live in fear or I will be forced to remove them. So I am an idiot too. I am a greedy selfish idiot.

b) I was fully taken in by a door to door salesman and didn’t understand that I could easily commission the panels myself so was happy to give most of the returns to a company who won’t have to suffer the drop in value of my home or the unsightliness, or the maintenance problems they will cause, or the hassle when I move or any other problems. So I am a first class idiot.

c) If energy companies can’t get as much from the energy they sell, they will try to increase the rental and maintenance and billing charges to maintain their revenue. And that means I will get less net profit from any energy I put back into the grid. So I probably won’t save much on what I buy and won’t make much on what I put back. And when I sell my house, even though I will get less for it because the panels make it look awful, I will probably lose heavily again in various admin fees to transfer the solar contracts over to the buyer, who probably won’t get the same deal, so won’t pay me much for it. So I am not as canny as I thought and my returns will be far less, so I am an idiot.

d) As long as I have the latest panels I will look cool and trendy. But they won’t be the latest panels for more than a few months, after which they will quickly start to look obsolete as well as unsightly, so I will have to either reinvest regularly or accept looking like a loser. So I am an idiot.

e) I care for the environment but not enough to do any basic reading and can’t think for myself anyway. I have been fully taken in by the anthropogenic global warming scam and as the global warming panic changes to global cooling panic I will increasingly be labelled as one of the idiots who went along with the AGW panic and just did what the environmentalists told me to do. I am a well-meaning idiot with little or no independent thought. Still an idiot though.

f) Solar panels will one day be an excellent way of reducing CO2 emissions, albeit in sunny countries. However, they are darker and absorb more of the sun’s energy than the roof did previously, so contribute directly to warming the earth, and manufacturing them creates loads of pollutants today, so it isn’t really quite as simple is it? And anyway, maybe we should have waited and put our panels in later, in the Sahara, and got far more energy for far lower costs, while helping poor African economies. And we now know for certain that the impact of CO2 has been greatly exaggerated and is fairly small compared to other impacts on global temperature. On the other hand, as global cooling sets in, we will welcome the extra heat absorption and I’ll be able to get my energy while helping warm the earth. But I didn’t expect it, so am a lucky idiot who landed in poo and came out smelling of roses.

g) I am holier than you are. You obviously don’t care about your kids and their future. I do, aren’t I wonderful? But I can’t think clearly so am happy to do make some ill-informed token gestures instead of things that actually help. So I am a sanctimonious idiot.

At the moment, public opinion hasn’t had time to catch up and many people are still influenced by AGW panic. But it will. Give it a while, and attitudes will migrate from the first list to the second.

I am all in favour of solar energy in the future in some sunny areas. It has an important role to play, but it isn’t as squeaky clean as it initially looks. It doesn’t need subsidised. When the technology is mature, it will be far cheaper than many other forms of energy, but it isn’t there yet. Since global warming has stopped for 15 years or more now, and it looks more and more like we are heading into a prolonged period of cooling, there is no economic or environmental justification for installing subsidised solar. If it indeed helps the environment overall, it will be far better to invest the same amount later, when we can buy more and help more. There is certainly no cause for panic based subsidies. In the short term they move money from the poor to the greedy, and in the longer term, even those people will lose out. Even the companies installing them can’t seem to survive because of the rapid technology evolution, making their investments in stock worthless and changes in subsidies undermining their business models. It really seems that there are no winners from early investment.

One day, in some places and circumstances, it may be a great idea, but for now, across the UK, rooftop solar power is for greedy, selfish, sanctimonious idiots.

Will Barclays become a Not-For-Profit company?

It has been interesting watching the protest by Barclays shareholders.  It made me think about what is happening here. I wonder if what we are seeing is the start of a new trend, or whether it has been going on for ages but I just never noticed it before. Anyway, a picture paints a thousand words.

Us and Them

Staff in many big companies (mentioning no names, but this is more widespread than it ought to be) will have experienced the feeling that the company thinks of them as a drain on resources. It feels to them that they are continuously made to work harder for less. Temporary staff and contractors may be treated even worse, as disposables even. It is sad because the staff are the ones who do the work, and they ought to be fully rewarded for doing a good job. Government and the tax man are well used to being treated as the enemy, but have big enough guns to fight their corner. Suppliers are well used to having to fight for every penny, but usually can demand a decent return because of their competitive position. Society is a big stakeholder in most companies, as is the environment, but mostly they have to put up with what they are given, with government and regulators supposedly protecting them from the worst abuses.

It has always looked a bit ‘Us and Them’, but the number in the Us camp is falling. Society was the first casualty. Boards realise that they can use globalisation and tax specialists to legally avoid tax, exploiting any holes in the system left by incompetent tax authorities. This problem makes daily news now, with company after company being shamed for hiding away from their tax duties in cracks in the rules. The rest of us have to pay more tax because some of the richest companies avoid paying theirs. Global companies search globally for the biggest cracks and set up there.

Customers, and savers in particular, used to be treated better too. Some banks have started using confusion marketing and other dirty tricks to reduce how much they pay to those who provide the money they need to rent to others. I am a long-standing customer with Barclays and have certainly noticed their policy to do all they can to avoid paying me interest any more. They rely on the fact that most of us won’t care enough to actually bother to move accounts. So at least as far as some big banks are concerned, customers have migrated gradually over decades out of the friends list and are now firmly in the ‘them’ camp.

The shareholder used to be the focus of corporate loyalty. Staff were forced to work harder to generate better shareholder returns. It seems that idea has been trumped in Barclays, but they aren’t the only one. I may only have noticed this new aspect of evolution, but now that I think about it, it is really only the latest extension of a long trend of paying higher and higher executive rewards, which I certainly have noticed. CEOs and directors have been overpaid for quite a while, as I have blogged about previously. A small number are worth what they are paid, the rest could easily be replaced by any number of people just below them with no noticeable loss to the company. But for boards to treat shareholders as competition for rewards seems new to me.

If a big company has previously been owned by a family, the small number of major shareholders are often board members themselves, or at least have good representation, so there is no problem. When a company has been listed for a long time, shareholders can be spread over a large population, so it is hard for them to defend their interests. The web makes it easier for them to organise protests, but it is still very difficult to mobilise enough to actually change anything. A few large pension funds or other investors may have some clout, but they may have a very hands off approach and may not be very interested in intervening. It is then that directors can start to manipulate the company as if it were their own. As directors often have directorships in a number of companies, they can act for their common interests, advising on high rewards for each other, until they end up taking the lion’s share of rewards for themselves and their friends, with shareholders pushed into second place. The ‘Us’ camp has been reduced to the board room. Everyone else is competition.

It isn’t quite so simple though, as a few other parties can demand high shares, even if they are not seen as friends. In big banks, the rewards have to be shared with experts, without whom there would simply be no rewards to share. This includes their own traders, tax consultants and a few others. Boards have to pay the going rates for them. They aren’t friends so much as partners. They have to be treated with respect simply because they can demand it.

If this trend were to continue a while longer, shareholders may end up with less and less. The more distributed the shareholder base becomes, the harder it is for them to mobilise their power, so the less effective power they hold. Boards can ignore them more and more easily. Customers will pay more, savers will be paid less, staff will be paid less and worked harder. Taxes will be minimised, risks passed as much as possible onto society and the taxpayer. The maximised profits and minimised risks will be directed as far as possible to the Us people running the company. It could essentially become a not-for profit organisation, with very highly paid board members and other key partners, low profits, and thus little left for dividends and taxes.