During the O’Reilly Radar Briefing at Etech 2007, there was a short but thought provoking discussion about energy. The discussion was with Alec Proudfoot, a co-chair of the Energy Innovation Conference 2007, Paul Kedrosky and Rich Miller. The interesting point that came up when web2.0 came up. Basically, web2.0 is all about centralization of computing, applications move from PCs to the web. At the other side of a network connection the computing is taking place, instead of on the desktop. This has a great influence on where electricity is consumed. Already it is know that processors for datacenters cost more in their energy consumption than their upfront cost price.

The result is that data centers are moving to places where energy is more ‘abundant’, for example central Washington state. It’s like going back in time to the industrial revolution, where factories were build close to the necessary resources. Now the compute farms are moving to rural areas where green electricity (hydropower) is available. Another interesting piece of information is that the current backlog for ordering backup diesel generators is about 14 months. Amazing.

It will be interesting to see what happens if services like google applications or the online photoshop application really take off.

update: Nicholas Carr also makes the same point today in his blog post ‘the real web2.0

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3D printing

5 April, 2007

Although I missed part of this session, it turned out to be very interesting. Forrest Higgs presented his work on a self-replicating 3D printer. His goal seems very bold, but actually feasible: build a 3D prototyping machine for less than $500. It should be able to replicate most of its own parts.

Actually, during the talk it turned out that he actually wants such a device to be in the hands of youngsters (his proverbial 12 year old), so that the can make their own stuff.

Most of what he showed dealt with his own endeavour: the Tommelise. It is a spinoff from the RepRap project. Basically, the printer is a hot glue-gun with xyz mechanism to position itself to ‘print’ objects. This is the very short version. Of course it does not print glue, but extrudes different kinds of materials from a continuus filament. The materials could be almost anything, like ceramics, plastics or even metals. So far, it has already printed some plastic parts, but experiments are on the way to also print electronics.

Furthermore, this printer will be able to make other machines as well. This way a whole ‘production’ plant can be printed together. First the plant can be scaled up by printing more 3D printers. Then machines can be printed that can do some specialised things, like printing cogs. If all parts for a certain product can be printed, then a pick and place machine can be print to integrate all parts.

Very cool stuff indeed. In the future it could happen that we do not buy products in a store, but just go shopping for the best filaments to print our own things.

It has been called the invention that will bring down global capitalism, start a second industrial revolution and save the environment – and it might just put Santa out of a job too. (Guardian, november 25, 2006)

Still having Etech 2007 on my mind. One of the themes this year was clearly the future of manufacturing. One session about this theme took place in the O’Reilly Radar Briefing.

A lot of people start hacking ‘stuff’. Dale Dougherty is the editor and publisher of Make and was part of the O’Reilly Radar Briefing. I cannot find clear statistics on how many people actually read the magazine, but here are some demographics. A countertrend at this moment is that ‘working with your hands’ is becoming unpopular in the American school system.

Brian Warshawsky has worked at Apple on the Ipod, but is now actively working on the $100 (or now called the One Laptop per Child project (OLPC)). The company he works for, Potenco, has developed the portable power generator for the OLPC. This work has radically changed through the way they do prototyping nowadays. It has become possible to draw up a product, and get a working prototype within a week. Either through 3D printing, or through subcontracting in Eastern Asia (read: China).

John Hagel gave some insights about how R&D and manufacturing is changing in China. This is most visible in ‘creation nets‘ (pdf link) in the motor industry in Chongqin (just a tiny Chinese city of about 32 million people). One organizer (in this case a motor manufacturer) has many parties (hundreds or thousands) working on components for a new motorcycle. Each participant has to compete with many others in the network for his ideas (and parts) to get into the final product. In the end the end-product is highly modularized and in a way standardised (per release). The key results of this way of research and development are:

  • The participants in the network keep pushing the envelope. In order to get business in the network, each participants has to compete to get a deal with the integrator ‘on top’. This way, innovation occurs rapidly.
  • In order to become a succesful player, the delivered components should be highly reliable. The outcome of the ‘game’ is that the integral bike is very reliable. This is a must because the bike’s owners do not have the money (or time) to go back to the garage every week.
  • Together, the network learns rapidly. There cannot be many secrets in the network, so everyone benefits from the lessons other competitors learned.

Of course, this network approach to R&D and manufacturing is not totally new, it has happened in the west also. However, the sheer scale of it makes a difference. This is actually turning a weakness of Chinea (dealing with IPR) into a strength: fixing some standards interfaces makes it possible to innovate within a large network

In a way I’m a bit disappointed by the talk of Jeff Hawkins on Hierarchical Temporal Memory (HTM). But, I guess, it’s my own fault as well. Already I read his book (On Intelligence), read up on the NuPIC platform and played around with the demo application. So what can you expect from a 45 minutes talk on the subject.

One thing that came up in the talk were limitations of the software. At this moment two things are not yet tackled. First, precise timing cannot be addressed by the system. This would mean that (near) real-time control of a system will be a challenge. Another issue is modeling natural language with HTMs. At this moment there is not a clear idea yet how to go about this. In general, Numenta does not focus on specific applications. Their business model is based on earning money with a licensing model. For demonstration purposes they focus on vision system, which is also shown with the released demo application.

In the end I’m still curious to see what NuPIC can do, and like to see another application other that the (still impressive) demo.

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web 2.0 and wallstreet

27 March, 2007

Another part of the ‘briefing’ today was about how web 2.0 and wallstreet are related. Seems like a far stretch, but actually wallstreet turns out to be fairly connected (yes, that is an understatement). Nowadays trading takes place within (a) millisecond(s), and no that is not overstating it.

Peter Bloom and Bill Janeway took a seat on the couch, and rapidly fired interesting pieces of information about wallstreet into the audience. The pace was high and the concepts abstract. The main issue seems to be that trading information has become invaluable. This in turn means that a lot is being done to make sure that information does not fall into the hands of people (or bots for that matter) that shouldn’t know. The study in this area is called ‘behavioral finance‘.

Not just pace of this talk was high, but the pace of trading is rapidly changing. A couple of years ago guarantees for trades were in the order of seconds, now their almost at a sub-millisecond level. There are trade brokers, who operate at about 1000 trades per second. What happens is that the time to change a mistake (which sometimes happens) goes to zero. This has great implications in the world, where computers are taking over from humans.

Tim O’Reilly tried tying this back to web 2.0, which seemed a bit artificial. Although it would be interesting to be able to trade in google adwords.

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The first part of the O’Reilly Radar Executive Briefing mainly dealt with the way manufacturing of hardware is changing. It started off with a talk about the Make: magazine with the editor and publisher Dale Dougherty. Basically what is happening is that a some people like to hack hardware to make new things. This could be a trend in the future. However, at the same time the observation was that in US education (and probably in more places) hands-on learning is happening less often. Already ‘shop-class’ where you learn how to build things disappears because of liability issues.

The session continued with Brian Warshawsky of Potenco, who showed some prototypes of a power supply for the ‘One Laptop per Child’ project. The way they are working has changed dramatically through the use of (real) rapid prototyping. With the use of contract manufacturing in China and prototyping devices like 3D printers they are able to get working prototypes of their ideas within a week.

Bunnie Huang, working on the Chumby, told a similar story. He added an open source hardware model to the picture. A common perceived problem with manufacturing in China is the potential problems with IPR. When he moved part of the manufacturing to China, the companies started offered to sign NDA’s. His reply was: “no need, all blueprints are on this URL”. In this case, the businessmodel is based on a subscription model for the widgets running on Chumby.

Simon Wardley also joined the stage and put forward the idea that hardware is become more and more malleable. Would it even go so far that it might become more malleable than software in the future? Also, this provokes the question whether if there should be ‘hardware compilers’. A compiler should be able to make decisions on how to put together products, and what materials (and manufacturing) should be chosen. The end goal of this ‘agile’ manufacturing is not to move to China, but to get manufacturing into the home, let people make their own stuff.

Of course the discussion also moved into the area of printing electronics. Not just for the sake of quick prototyping, but for the virtues of this technology. It should become possible to print (conference) bags with solar panels. One step further would be to have 3D printers that can also include the electronics into the printed models.