Digital Fabrication – Challenging The Economy?


Any introduction into macroeconomics since its existence as the classic national economy counts among its base assumptions and basic terms, for example, the shortage of economic goods, the production factors of soil, labour and capital (as machines and buildings), interoffice and intercompany, as well as intergovernmental division of labour, trade of goods and services, as well as the barter and monetised economy based hereupon. What would change, in the real economy as well as in the macroeconomics observing it, if instead of the proverbial industrial factory with smoke stacks as the typical means of production of the industrialised society, there now were small, cheap, all-purpose “desk top factories” (cf. Vilbrandt et al 2008: 259–284), allowing anybody to make arbitrary high-quality consumer goods themselves, usable without limitations and adaptable to the individual user preferences? This would then allow any consumer to satisfy any of their consumer desires – with top quality goods, objects or devices, in every respect completely functional, produced with an economically justifiable amount of energy and raw materials, and within a completely satisfactory production time?

Prima facie two things appear quite obvious in this context: a) economic consequences would be hardly foreseeable, they would refashion the innermost and oldest principles and laws of economic science, and economic events at its deepest core and at its root, and would, in this sense, be truly revolutionary; as well as equally obvious but also b): such perfect small, cheap and universal fabrication equipment doesn’t (yet) exist.

However, their development has been the subject of research for many years, and the development objectives presented by some of the representatives of this research area, also to the general public, are quite ambitious. Physicist and computer scientist Neil Gershenfeld, who teaches and researches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA, for example, likes to strive towards a vision of universal fabrication equipment familiar from science fiction, the so-called “Star Trek Replicator”, to illustrate the aspired fabrication capacities of the “Digital Fabrication” (cf. G. A. Popescu 2007) he and his “Center for Bits and Atoms” have researched: it is about transforming things into data and data into things to then – just as this “Replicator” from science fiction – be able to make exact replicas of any item by calculating a complete digital model including internal material structures of the components, which is then in turn used to control the construction of the copy of such a digitalised object from the tiniest molecular units. In an article published in the periodical “Foreign Affairs”, Gershenfeld recently presented a summary of the state of his research to a wider public, flowing into the verbalisation of the, to his mind, resulting collective challenges: “Digital fabrication (…) is an evolving suite of capabilities to turn data into things and things into data. Many years of research remain to complete this vision, but the revolution is already well under way. The collective challenge is to answer the central question it poses: How will we live, learn, work, and play when anyone can make anything, anywhere?” (Gershenfeld 2012)

Is this collective challenge not also, and possibly primarily, aimed at economic sciences? Are there not already some central problems to address, even if this technology of digital fabrication is not yet matured but instead, as Gershenfeld states, still in the infancies?

Economic sciences have to date been used to understand and treat technical advances as either product or process innovation, and both were able to flow into economic growth, thus, with the inclusion of a series of additional assumptions, into growing prosperity. Up to now, by largely undivided conception, wealth was – and is – defined by the three components growth, monetary stability and full employment. But how would economic wealth be defined under this premise – that in fact anybody can produce any consumer good themselves at any time? Wherein it should technically speaking be: having it produced themselves (fully automatic), so: consuming without having provided this input that so far flowed into economic performance accounting as work performance. So: wealth, perhaps even monetary stability, but without full employment? Or wealth entirely without money (cf. Bowyer 2004)? Or entirely without employment, without the burden of work so well defined in macroeconomics?

In order to pave the road to an answer to these – quite significant – questions compatible with existing economic knowledge, we will

1) first take a closer look at what “everybody”, “any time” and “everything” could actually mean according to the current state of research, and the methods currently being applied to make advances in this area. For this purpose we will analyse some published research results and literature from recent years.

2) After detailed presentation of the functionality of digital fabrication it becomes apparent this does not pertain to stand-alone, on its own functional equipment, but that a key functional component exists in the availability of digitalised product models, which can typically also be made accessible and exchanged through public data networks such as the Internet. The resulting economic question is: will owning such a universal desk top factory transform its owner into a businessman who will typically seek to sell his fabricated creations on the market for profit? Or is the reasonable and more rational method of economic use rather to use these universal factories to cover one’s own use as far as possible by machine-produced goods, thus rather creating and using a publicly owned production system under public accountability – consisting of the fabricators as the final junctions, a data network and a “thesaurus” of data models as the central system components? Within the thematic frame of discussing the economic future of the “Maker Movement”, which has already formed around this technology in recent years, this question was, for example, discussed by Anderson as an option between “Commercial Web” with low entrance barriers and “billions of small business profit opportunities” for smart, creative people on the one hand (this option was outlined by J. Rifkin as a “Third Industrial Revolution”, referring to the “Internet, Green Electricity and 3-D Printing”; cf. Rifkin 2012), and as the alternative of “real web, where the majority of content is created by amateurs, without any intention of making money at all” on the other (Anderson 2012:225). Anderson outlined this second alternative as “self-sufficiency” – however, used here this is a confusing term, since a market-based national economy and its participants do indeed provide for themselves, but through trading services and goods on markets, and in the different roles as employees, and capital owning employers and entrepreneurs. So the pivotal question will also be: if anything will, could or should change precisely here, change this type of organisation of economy, and the organisation of allocation of goods and factors. The following will support the opinion that, as a distant prospect, and as this technology continues to mature, the second alternative will or should assert itself, and that with increasing productive capacities, increasing computing and production speeds, as well as increasing data transfer speeds only this path will allow for the rational, stable and predictable economic supply of goods in the long term.

3) After all, even with the greatest imaginable perfection and technical completeness the “digital fabrication” presented can only reach the productive secondary sector, possibly transforming and “revolutionising” it in the indicated manner. But large areas of economic value creation are in the tertiary sector (such as, education, healthcare, science, cultural activity), and the primary net product (production of raw materials, energy, food products) will also not be made hugely more productive by using this introduced fabrication technology. How could economic value creation and economic wealth be described viewing the coaction of all value-adding factors, provided such a technology is available? Can a tertiary culture and civilisation, which has in many cases been described as a variant of a future post-industrial society, perhaps only be expected on this technological premise?

Digital Fabrication

The author of a master thesis on “Digital Materials for Digital Fabrication” summarises the key characteristics of digital fabrication as follows:

“In the same way digital communications and computation are discrete in the code space, digital fabrication is discrete in the physical space. Just as digital communications enabled cheap long-distance communications and digital computation enabled cheap, universal and efficient computers, digital fabrication enables cheap, efficient and universal fabrication. Building digitally will reduce the complexity of the assembler and can produce a wider variety of objects for a smaller cost” (Popescu 2007:2).

Hereafter, digital fabrication is then described as an analogy of manufacturing 3-dimensional structures with LEGO pieces, with the advantage of being quicker and easyer to produce, reversible and reusable, but especially more accurate than the individuals who will be using them. Just as constructing with LEGO bricks, the principle of reusability, simplicity and speed also applies to digital fabrication, but with components of the same quality and size which ultimately also allow for product development on an Avogadro scale, i.e. developing and controlling fabrication processes assembling more than 1023 components per volume unit. This then obviously also includes “programming” the desired material properties (Popescu 2007:7ff.). In addition to the digital materials described, which will then still need to be assembled and possibly also disassembled by molecular assemblers, other methods of digital fabrication are being researched, including, for example, chains with programmable materials, which can fold into random 3-dimensional objects (“Milli-Motein”; cf. Knaian et al. 2012), or other methods inspired by biological “fabrication”, such as amino acids assembling to ribosomes (Knaian 2008). N. Gershenfeld explains, referencing research from his laboratory at MIT:

“Labs like mine are now developing 3-D assemblers (rather than printers) that can build structures in the same way as the ribosome. The assemblers will be able to both add and remove parts from a discrete set. One of the assemblers we are developing works with components that are a bit bigger than amino acids, cluster of atoms about ten nanometres long (an amino acid is around one nanometre long). These can have properties that amino acids cannot, such as being good electrical conductors or magnets. The goal is to use the nano-assembler to build nano-structures, such as 3-D integrated circuits. Another assembler we are developing uses parts on the scale of microns to millimetres. We would like this machine to make the electronic circuit boards that the 3-D integrated circuits go on. Yet another assembler we are developing uses parts on the scale of centimetres, to make larger structures, such as aircraft components and even whole aircraft that will be lighter, stronger, and more capable than today’s planes — think a jumbo jet that can flap its wings.” (Gershenfeld 2012)

So assemblers to handle different size materials are being worked on, from very small to comparatively large, including methods to manufacture goods beyond private consumption such as a large airliner, which outsiders to this subject may view as no less off the wall than the nano-scale operations described. These, however, already have some scientific history; theoretical foundation goes back to research of Eric Drexler at MIT, who presented his first dissertation on molecular nanotechnology in 1991, and who also coined the terms “nanobot” and molecular assemblers (Drexler 1991). Drexler also initiated a first descriptive visualisation of a “Nano factory” in a “movie” showing a laptop being manufactured using molecular assemblers (Drexler n. d.; cf. also Drexler 1992). So Drexler doesn’t focus on the concept of universal fabrication equipment as much as Lipson and Gershenfeld (cf. Gershenfeld 2005), but, among other things, specific fields of application for special products and materials, which could only be manufactured using nanotechnology. However, the technological basis of ideally truly universal fabrication equipment lies obviously in the potential of machine processing of digital operations with the minutest molecular units.

Now at this point it is not possible to provide extensive detailed descriptions; an economical assessment will need to presume the prospected development perspectives of this technology; at any rate, it must commit itself largely to the judgement of expert scientists. In this sense allow me to quote another paragraph from the above Gershenfeld text, which must be of great interest in the context of an economic assessment. At this point it should be noted that Gershenfeld is referring to the “Fab Labs” (= Fabrication Laboratories) that he founded, which are of both educational and practical benefit, and are equipped with state of the art technology for manufacturing objects (such as laser cutters, CNC equipment or just 3D printers) in order to introduce people to this technology on the one hand, or to provide them – possibly in countries with low living standards, such as rural India or Afghanistan – with the opportunity to manufacture items (such as pumps for field irrigation) they would otherwise not be able to acquire, or only at far greater costs.

“The most interesting thing that an assembler can assemble is itself. For now, they are being made out of the same kinds of components as are used in rapid prototyping machines. Eventually, however, the goal is for them to be able to make all their own parts. The motivation is practical. The biggest challenge to building new fab labs around the world has not been generating interest, or teaching people how to use them, or even cost; it has been the logistics. Bureaucracy, incompetent or corrupt border controls, and the inability of supply chains to meet demand have hampered our efforts to ship the machines around the world. When we are ready to ship assemblers, it will be much easier to mail digital material components in bulk and then e-mail the design codes to a fab lab so that one assembler can make another.”

Provided that such a molecular assembler could even assemble itself, the transport would then take place by sending a host of digital material components in bulk, and then emailing the design codes to a FabLab or at least to a site where there is already a molecular assembler and then to assemble these parts into the new assembler using the design code. Considering the fact that this type of fabrication and “logistics” will then not only apply to these assemblers but to any consumer item, which can theoretically be produced in this fashion, this then brings up another aspect of global economic impacts of this form of fabrication, namely, the elimination of shipping goods worldwide – with its confessed high environmental impact. Of course, the envisioned ability of self-replication is no less significant to the economy; this was already mentioned above.

Digital fabrication must be distinguished from the 3D printing process: after all, 3-dimensional printing does not use digital materials but – usually – conventional “analogue” plastic, which is heated and placed precisely in tiny drops in predetermined locations using controlled jets. Here it hardens, is thus – at a very high resolution in layers only 0.1 millimetres thick – successively compiled to form the desired object. Based on the 3D printing technology, we cannot yet speak of actual universal fabrication as Gershenfeld (l.c.) emphasised in his article; Gershenfeld stresses, for example, the adverse attribute of error accumulation in 3D printing (the faulty compilation of bottom layers is adopted by upper layers; thus accumulating errors and subsequent errors); the size of the objects to be produced is limited to the “design space” of the 3D printer whereas, in contrast, the previously mentioned reusability of digital materials and furthermore their structural properties are not at all restricted to these size limitations of 3D printing. Gershenfeld emphasises that the primary difference between “assemblers” of digital materials and 3D printers is that these assemblers will be able to produce completely functional systems in one single fabrication process.

According to a report in the German news magazine “DER SPIEGEL”, this technology of 3D printing nonetheless is currently already booming, the worldwide sales of 3D printers increased six-fold in the last two years and the application range is also growing by leaps and bounds (DER SPIEGEL 52/2012: Art. 7). 3D printing actually was referenced in the 2013 State of the Union Address by US-President Barack Obama as having “the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything”. Possibly 3D printing could prove to be a precursor to actual universal digital fabrication at a later date. In his quoted paper, Popescu presents a table of complexities and costs of various fabrication technologies going back to Professor Joseph Jacobsen, also from MIT, to show that more complex structures can theoretically be manufactured at lower costs than by most other fabrication technologies which currently exist, by using additive compounding of digital materials:


This chart now also shows the dimensions the continuing development of this technology will have: this fabrication technology will have become an immense economical factor, at the latest when fabrication costs per volume unit, given pre-existing production complexity, error rate and production speeds, have reached those of conventional manufacturing methods. At the latest when this level of maturity has been reached, we should ask if this technology wouldn’t also manifest a quite crucial attribute in addition to the potential to produce high-quality products with low consumption of resources, which will then make it clearly more beneficial compared to conventional mass production at factories producing for the market: when reaching the saturation limits of the absorption capacities of markets, economic wealth can no longer be expanded through qualitative or quantitative expansion of production capacities. But this technology would allow for production at the location of consumption, “producing products for a market of one person”, as Gershenfeld says (l.c.), in which case saturation would mean nothing other than: simply shutting off the molecular assembler. We will address this aspect in more details later on.

The “Center for Bits and Atoms” at MIT is currently working on the following main research:

o digital materials and assemblers

o biobits

o machines that make machines

o fab modules

o fab labs

o programmable surfaces

o programmable matter

o aligning hardware and software

o mind machines

o internet of things (CBA.MIT.EDU 2012)

Computational Biologist Hod Lipson at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, is working on the same main research area, and the “Creative Machines Lab” headed by him has addressed the following subjects:

o Dynamical Systems and Artificial Life

o Evolutionary Robotics and Computation

o Programmable Matter and Self-assembly

o Amorphous Machines

o 3D Printing

o Design Automation and HCI (Lipson 2012)

In contrast to Gershenfeld Lipson considers assemblers for digital materials (referred to here as: physical voxels) to be 3D printers too; the website of his institute presents the functionality of a prototype for such a molecular assembler, and further also the typical properties of digital materials. Lipson also became known to a wider audience through the Fab@Home project he initiated. Here he pursues the goal of “democratisation” of fabrication more specifically beyond the technically scientific approach through a) offering a low cost construction kit for a 3D printer and b) access to current, innovative know-how as part of an open source project.

Lipson’s work also has the generalised goal of developing a small, low cost (since self-replicable) and universal fabrication device. In a paper published in 2008, Lipson and others described “universal desktop fabrication” as the “new paradigm of production” and confounded this theoretically: “Advances in digital design and fabrication technologies are leading toward single fabrication systems capable of producing almost any complete functional object. We are proposing a new paradigm for manufacturing, which we call Universal Desktop Fabrication (UDF), and a framework for its development. UDF will be a coherent system of volumetric digital design software able to handle infinite complexity at any spatial resolution and compact, automated, multi-material digital fabrication hardware. This system aims to be inexpensive, simple, safe and intuitive to operate, open to user modification and experimentation, and capable of rapidly manufacturing almost any arbitrary, complete, high-quality, functional object. Through the broad accessibility and generality of digital technology, UDF will enable vastly more individuals to become innovators of technology, and will catalyse a shift from specialized mass production and global transportation of products to personal customization and point-of-use manufacturing. Likewise, the inherent accuracy and speed of digital computation will allow processes that significantly surpass the practical complexity of the current design and manufacturing systems. This transformation of manufacturing will allow for entirely new classes of human-made, peer-produced, micro-engineered objects, resulting in more dynamic and natural interactions with the world. We describe and illustrate our current results in UDF hardware and software, and describe future development directions.” (Vilbrandt et al 2008: 259–284)

So a universal fabrication system – as demonstrated in this text – always consists of a (conventional) computer processing information that in this case processes design software, and a hardware component, which executes the discrete actions to process the matter, whether they are analogue or digital material units. The capacity and ability of any fabrication machine, whether it is a 3D printer or molecular assembler or compiler, will therefore naturally also depend on the quality of this controlling software, and the development of this software will account for a major part of the development efforts to actually build powerful universal fabrication machines. Economically relevant in this context – as already addressed in the beginning – is the ability given by the Internet to develop this controlling software, on the one hand, and to develop product data models publicly, in so-called open source projects, and, on the other hand, the technical opportunity to directly access – completed – product data models for the purpose of individual consumption. The text cited addresses the opportunity for many people to become technological innovators this way, allowing for completely new classes of objects to be created which are “peer produced”, in other words, created and produced in informal, non-hierarchic groups and organisational processes.

But is – in the longer term view – the opportunity to develop innovative products and incorporate the creative potential of many people in an informal, public production process of equals among equals, and furthermore, also the addressed revolution to point-of-usage production, away from industrial bulk goods with typically associated global traffic flow, in fact the economically most important aspect of this new production technology?

Stagnation-Stable Economy

In mature, highly productive societies that have accumulated wealth for a long time, there is an increasingly wider population stratum facing the situation of wanting or needing to – for example as retirement security – live off interest or capital gains. But due to relatively decreasing demand in the real economy it is becoming more and more difficult to produce these capital gains, resulting in an excess supply of capital, despite high public and private debt. So while the debt of the general government of the Federal Republic of Germany increased to 2,082 BN EUR by mid 2012, the private financial assets in 2011 reached a level of 4,715 BN EUR, and total assets increased to 11,771 BN EUR (Source: Federal Statistical Office; Date 1/01/2013). A comparison of savings ratios confirms the image where, as income increases, disproportionally high portions of income are being saved (cf. Helmedag 2007:414); this observation would then conform to the “fundamental-psychological law” described by J. M. Keynes (Keynes 1936). Growth-inhibiting findings have been accumulating since about the 1970s, whether of ecological, exogenic nature, or, for example, endogenetic and saturation-related. For example, Reichwald/Piller describes an “increasing individualisation of demand”, as well as an increasingly “hedonistic” consumer attitude, which is obviously not driven by the frugal satisfaction of needs that must not be delayed; further, a transition from a seller’s to a buyer’s market, with the shift of the market and negotiating power from the seller to the buyer, this is obviously due to the translocated initial interest: it is no longer predominantly buyers looking for a product, but predominantly sellers looking for buyers (Reichwald/Piller 2009). Due to this fundamental change in circumstances, the competitive conditions of companies are tightening, and they are now also seeking to increase customer loyalty through measures such as offering interactive product design. As a further consequence they are creating their own opportunity to determine customer demand more precisely and so serve it more accurately. This way they hope, among other things, to minimise the required investment in so-called slack resources (cf. v. Eiff 1992:75 ff.), or perhaps acquire the status of a “quasi monopolist”, thus putting themselves into a position to implement price surcharges (Piller 2000:165; cf. the production-scientific concept of mass-customization in Piller 2000).

This situation might tighten even further with increasing labour productivity and therefore increasing expansion of the product supply at full employment. There are now conceivable measures that could close the gap in the demand for goods and so also the gap in the demand for employment due to the real economic non-consumption by the upper income earners, using political means such as reducing work hours, proportionally to increased productivity. As a rule, stagnation or even a decline in economic growth with resulting scarcity in labour demand is seen rather as a functional deficiency or disorder of economic development, and a trend that started early in the last century to shorten the agreed weekly work hours from an initial 60 hours/week to 37 hours/week or 35 hours in some areas in 1990, has since been discontinued, and in parts even reversed. In 1930 J. M. Keynes presented one perspective of economic development beyond of a world with lifelong, full-time work in the sense of a positive, future-oriented concept (Keynes 1930). Here Keynes sees “man” in the what is now quite near future around 2030, “for the first time since his creation (…) will be faced with his real, his permanent problem”, namely “…to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” He saw the dawn of an “age of leisure and of abundance” where a 15-hour week with 3-hour shifts must rather continue to be the order of business because “the old Adam in us” will preserve our desire for some type of work, even if the objective economic necessity no longer exists since the “economic problem”, the “fight for existence” has already been permanently conquered and solved.

From today’s point of view we would have to establish that the total social wealth available – at least in the world’s highest developed industrial countries – may correspond to the abundant plenty expected by Keynes, however, it is evident that we cannot possibly speak of a “solution to the economic problem” today, in the sense of a permanent, static and, so possibly also irreversible, reliable and secured state for all population strata as a matter of principle, without partial systematic exclusion of access and participation.

Together with other authors, Keynes saw the source for this future social wealth to be “science and compound interest”, with “science” referring to those gains in the dispose or procedural knowledge that form product or process innovations, allowing for or including innovative or improved consumer goods that simplify and enrich life, and the accelerated or more efficient manufacture. A development structure induced in this sense (among others) in the field of economic development, as is generally known, was also seen by K. Marx and later authors he inspired, such as E. Mandel. Mandel saw the economic state, roughly similar to the prosperous future described by Keynes, depending on the creation of a “park of automatic machines”: “If society has a park of automatic machines large enough to cover its entire on-going needs, and, if it further has sufficient reserves in multi-purpose machine tools to meet unforeseen events, then (…) mankind freed of all material and economic worries [will] be born.” (Mandel 1962:864) As is well known, according to Marx’s convictions, the people would then have to own these parks of automatic machines, to let these develop their wealth-securing potentials. But this hope too, as is well known, was not fulfilled; nowhere has the unlimited power of disposal of, in principle, all socially available production means in large parts of the world over decades, resulted in this static and continuous availability of social wealth, with coevally drastically reduced working requirements.

Possibly it is another attribute of these automatic machines that bring social wealth, which would allow for a step in the described, desired and, in fact, historically never realised economic conditions. A closer – production engineering – look at this attribute over the last decade may have already exposed it: in the course of industrialisation, with growing technical opportunities on the one hand, and an increasing saturation aspect, on the other, the development dimension of “increasing productivity” has been joined by the development dimension “flexibility” or universality. The development course of production types or -systems in industrial societies is marked by steady positive growth in productivity for the most part, gained by refining the process, later also the by employing mechanical energies. This takes its toll at first at the expense of flexibility: increases in productivity in manufacturing and in the Tayloristically organised factories of early industrialisation were achieved by breaking down and specialising work flows and the resulting professionalization of staff, which allowed the number of pieces of each production lot to be greatly increased (economies of scale; also cf. the famous example of pin production of Adam Smith). However, as F. T. Piller (Piller 2000) demonstrated impressively, this “traditional antagonism between flexibility and productivity” starting at the end of the 1980s, could gradually be cancelled out by the increasing use of IC [information and communication] technologies. This development path towards a further increase in productivity along with flexibility has stabilised through the 2000s, so that precisely this “equally flexible and productive factory of the future” can be called a metaphor or model for further technical evolution (Piller 2000:133). This type of technology now allows a type of economic entity to develop and differentiate, which Alvin Toffler documented in 1980 with the novel neologism “prosument”: the possibility for consumers to assume functions of production, of creating value to an increasing degree by providing them the opportunity to vary, design, or even create “their” product, or to quite generally provide constructive input on innovative design and improving processes or products (cf. the variety of prospects of interactive value creation, which Reichwald / Piller present in their book; Reichwald / Piller 2009:219 ff.). This process was summed up elsewhere as the core of value creation shifting increasingly toward the end of the value-added chain (W. Davidow, M. Malone 1993).

Now in this sense, the digital fabrication described above obviously presents the virtually ideal, perfect production system: a universal and yet highly productive fabrication machine, which, based on its potential for universal production capability, is suitable to produce at the site of consumption, and thus allowing to do without specialisation and so trade and merchandise traffic on markets. Only this way, through universal, at the point of consumption producing production systems, that eliminate the need for trade on markets and other economic movement of goods – producing simply for this cited one-person non-market with a lot size of 1 – will it even be theoretically conceivable for entire economies throughout all population strata to permanently and sustainably generate capital yields – in this case as value in use! – and to be able to live from these capital yields “wisely and agreeably and well”: production systems with a productivity high and widespread enough that these “capital yields” could be perceived to adequately meet foreseeable, existing and recurring needs for dealing with life’s challenges reliably and fully. This could, on principle, never be possible with specialised production systems operated for gains manufacturing for an anonymous market, even with conceivably perfected technical equipment. Further accumulation of this type of capital in form of improved digital fabrication efficiency, such as through increased production speed, reduced error rates or increased product complexities, would systematically never cause the dysfunction occurring in a market trade organisation through stagnant tendencies in the economic development, but rather they could, perhaps like the knowledge base of the free-content, openly editable information database Wikipedia, be further worked on and filled, in other words accumulated, or – if one day are perceived to be sufficient – left at the achieved development state.
Gershenfeld’s text, which has already been cited multiple times, has another passage which could provide some indication of the utilisation and potential path for such technology to penetrate the present economy. Here Gershenfeld mentions the Fab City Project (FabCity 2012a) that originated in Barcelona, that expands this concept, dating from the mentioned Fab Labs, toward Fab City as the “city as a production center” with the goal to “empower the networks of productive citizens” by creating “platforms of sharing production and innovation” (FabCity 2012b).

“Barcelona, like the rest of Spain, has a youth unemployment rate of over 50 per cent. An entire generation there has few prospects for getting jobs and leaving home. Rather than purchasing products produced far away, the city, with Guallart, is deploying fab labs in every district as part of the civic infrastructure. The goal is for the city to be globally connected for knowledge but self-sufficient for what it consumes.”

The goal described here for a city – to be globally connected for knowledge but self-sufficient for what it consumes – can obviously be generalised and applies to any economic organisational entity, which may form based on this fabrication technology. It further describes a mounting objective, which could possibly also take effect for other big cities around the world: here it is the economic need that makes people, and primarily young people, utilise these innovative production tools and obtain the required know-how, even if the technology is not yet matured:
“The digital fabrication tools available today are not in their final form. But rather than wait, programs like Barcelona’s are building the capacity to use them as they are being developed.”

As this technology matures one may reckon it will – at the same quality levels – allow for significantly lower priced products, not least because this method would also eliminate any additional product expenses such as marketing, logistics and warehousing, and to some degree also product development efforts. We can, therefore, expect this production method to eliminate conventional industrial production methods, and with it certainly the associated jobs too. Therefore, a need could successively arise to provide these tools – namely the necessary infrastructure to cross-link networks globally on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the production means for self-sufficiency with consumer goods – under public management and responsibility. With longer consideration and supposed maturity of this digital fabrication method, the economic, possibly very extensive and highly consequential significance of this innovative technology lies particularly in the opportunity to shift production to the place of consumption, and therefore, ultimately also in the creation of new, higher principles of order and control of goods and factor allocation and of economic commerce. If, according to P. A. Samuelsen, the “task of every economic order [is] to determine what should be produced in which quantities and for whom” (Samuelson 1974:35), then this task could obviously be solved much more efficiently under the outlined conditions and possibilities. An economic condition, marked by optimal goods allocation, efficient factor allocation and rather static quantities of goods produced macro-economically, but with pre-existing individual freedom to configure the available bundle of goods would be created. Obviously, stagnation-stable conditions are principally conceivable. Furthermore, possibilities to control production would arise according to super-private regulatory aspects and requirements (ecology, shortage of resources), that do not clash systematically with the at any rate short-term sale and profit interests of the operators and owners as is the case under market-based conditions. It would thus create an economic system with the control capacity to handle excess: at present, it seems that excess, i. e. the saturation levels achieved in many markets, the resulting lack of value-creating investment opportunities in the real economy and the increasingly destructive speculative and value-absorbing financial investments is the problem to be solved, rather than generating new demand and covering these through innovative consumer goods.

So according to this argumentation, the possibly, or even very likely developing know-how of digital fabrication also with private initiative and management would need to successively enter into public property and accumulate here, so that then, in the long run, it could be made openly available in order to create the opportunity to have goods manufactured for private consumption for anybody at very low costs or even for free (cf. FREE, Anderson 2009), using exactly the mechanical production means available at this location of consumption. Keeping the necessary infrastructure (networks, servers, databases) available and securing their functionality may possibly one day also become a public or even sovereign task, such as supplying the society with electricity or providing the infrastructure and keeping it at the ready for the spreading telecommunications, as was the case at the beginning of industrialisation (at least in large parts of Europe).

Tertiary Cultural Society

The course of the argumentation to this point and the presentation of the current development status of digital fabrication now also make it clear that a sudden qualitative development boost of economic production relations should not be anticipated. Without losing sight of the longer term perspective presented by J. Fourastié (Fourastié 1954), for example, who assumed a similar shift of production focuses from the secondary productive sector to the tertiary services sector as the previous shift from the primary agricultural sector to production, one will find that based on the development of the employment volumes, such development can also be expected according to the argumentation developed here. The argumentation developed here also suggests that a major part of employment would shift to the tertiary sector. Furthermore, the technology of digital fabrication will not suddenly spread throughout the entire product spectrum of industrial societies. Various paths of evolution and dissemination are imaginable for this technology, and certainly there will be diverse forms of mergers and cooperations with existing economic stakeholders and corporate bodies, including the described informal organisations such as “Maker Movement”. But thus, there is a long-term perspective for this organisation of the economy to retain economic dominance, and this would ultimately actually create a stable, predictable system to supply goods, what is a basis on which a tertiary cultural society can then unfold more freely and less hindered than under the current conditions. Under the given economic conditions of a dynamic, competitive market economy, the development path of a continuously progressing reduction of working hours is very unlikely. Under these conditions, renouncing possible job performance per se means increasing uncertainty and the risk of possibly no longer being able to find employment to the extent offered in the future; competition for the continuously declining labour supply will increase and this will lead to an overall increased uncertainty, volatility and unpredictability of living conditions. Under these living conditions the “hunger for the tertiary sector” dries up, so that the seamless transition into the tertiary cultural society assumed by Fourastié has obviously not been realised as anticipated by him. (cf. The discussion on the theory of tertiarisation of Fourastié under K. G. Zinn, Zinn 1994:86-94)

Why are we working in a tertiary cultural society? To meet furthermore existing requirements? Does an already begun “age of leisure and plenty” still hold unsatisfied needs?

According to a categorisation common in economic sciences, one must differentiate between finite and infinite needs. So for example, the need for prestige and recognition, for self-fulfilment, or even for owning prestige goods and non-duplicable antiques or artifacts, for things with a special and unique history, or for a property in a special residential area as classed as infinite. This already addresses the common differentiation between duplicable and non-duplicable goods, the so-called goods of rarity or monopoly: through – digital or otherwise – fabrication or manual production, goods can obviously be duplicated, while it is more likely that developable or developed properties in special locations are not; antiquities, wines of a certain vintage or famous artwork are absolutely not duplicable (cf. Reuter 2000; Reuter 1999:443 ff.). Previous argumentation presumed, at least by implication, the needs for industrial (or even through digital fabrication) duplicable goods to be finite, and so therefore be subject to saturation. A third differentiation now pertains to the values created in an economy, which can be differentiated as indivisible (objective), and divisible (subjective) values. This differentiation applies to partially and totally privatisable individually expendable consumer goods with exclusive use (rivalry in consumption), and non-divisible public collective or consumer goods with no or virtually no rivalry in consumption. For example legal repose and the institutions securing legal repose or the rule of law must be included in non-divisible and non-rival goods.

As has each already been addressed, a series of important, vital services such as healthcare, education and science, judiciary and public security cannot be replaced by technical means, but at best supported; so these services must continue to be rendered under any conceivable circumstances. But there would be reason to suspect that meeting the social requirements corresponding with these services would not require the entire socially available service potential, so that there some freedom and leeway will develop. Gershenfeld completed his work quoted here with the question: “how will we live, learn, work, and play when anyone can make anything, anywhere?” Perhaps the interpretation of the question of how we will also play is that Gershenfeld too sees a historically newly created and maturing opening for free play here. The game in terms of cultural creation, the performance, playing a musical instrument, playing with colours, forms, shapes and materials in visual and performing arts represents a recognised value by all means, and creating the possibility for people to exist with political, moral, and economic freedom along with economic and judicial certainty, whilst being able to submit to precisely this free artistic performance of fantasy and creative forces, may possibly represent a final, absolute and unquantifiable value of all the as individual performances otherwise quantifiable economic value creations.

It is imaginable that the described services will be joined by new ones, including perhaps also the manual production of traditional consumer goods, made from traditional, natural materials – simple for the joy of it, the joy in old craftsmanship, and in handling old materials.
Overall, one could expect a marketed exchange of such created values and services to result, certainly also in exchange with remaining industries, and that the rendering of such services would continue and so provide the opportunity for individuation and social recognition. But these services will primarily and typically be provided by individuals or partnerships, by factories or small businesses, but no longer by big corporate entities.

In an economy outlined this way, the feasible optimal would be defined differently than in a price-controlled, dynamic market economy: whereas here the optimum describes the excellence of goods and factor allocation achieved, by definition of the Pareto optimum, which must serve the purpose of constant maximization of the macroeconomic output at full employment, the optimum of a post-industrial, digital economy to be strived for could be described as a rather consistent – and socially rational definable – macroeconomic output as resource-effective as possible, thus also producing fully automated, hence with a minimised human work input within the productive secondary sector. Only these – technological – conditions would allow for a reduction of the necessary working time, even all the way to the complete automatic substitution of any functional human work input during production.

In conclusion, we can establish the following: Digital fabrication is the only element in the multitude of joint economic factors under review, which can truly be considered innovative from the ground up, never seen before in the history of mankind, and which should therefore also be worthy of consideration by the community of economic scientists, since after all it could give very new rise to very old hopes.


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