Saturday, November 12, 2005

The RepRap Project, and globalization

The RepRap project (blog here) aims to create a sort of general-purpose numerically-controlled machine tool that can be deployed in the developing world. It should have such general capabilities that it can be used to make another RepRap tool. Many great successes have come from humble beginnings, so although it isn't super-impressive now, it may yet achieve great and interesting things. Even if this particular effort doesn't prove very fruitful, the IDEA is out there, and in the long run that's more important.

The idea is that it should be open-sourced, and that it should be possible (with human involvement) to use one to make another, in addition to making many other useful things. The idea is to decentralize and spread and commoditize the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to ease the plight of poverty everywhere. For this reason, the RepRap guys have decided to GPL everything they do. The RepRap tool becomes cheap because one RepRap can be used to make another. This is a very powerful idea.

The RepRap doesn't accept natural materials (rocks, bark, twigs, dirt) as raw materials. The villager who wants to make a widget for his family must be able to buy or barter for raw materials. Stuff doesn't become free, but it does become much cheaper. The same globalization that hurts workers in the developed world helps the developing-world villager.

Building a complete self-replicative manufacturing unit in another country would be a ridiculously expensive undertaking. Training, machine tools, buildings - millions or billions of dollars involved. Its size would necessitate organizing it as several individual businesses that buy and sell intermediate products to one another, and there'd be business failures.

People gripe about how Walmart is destroying American jobs, but Walmart is simply hastening the approach of an inevitable economic equilibrium, Developing countries (primarily China) are getting paid to build more manufacturing infrastructure for themselves. Japan ate our manufacturing lunch in the 1980s, today China is eating Japan's lunch.

The economic long term equilibrium outlook: The whole world is "developed". American wages drop, wages elsewhere rise, eventually all that settles. Speaking as a comfortable middle-aged American, I can't say I look forward gleefully to my own plight in the coming decades, but hopefully development will help the rest of the world.

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