The digitisation of manufacturing & Bruce Sterling’s “spimes.”

by Randy Tsang

  • Printable electronics using ink jet technology
  • Products that talk to us

I’ve read a couple of interesting articles over the past month. The first was an article by PC Magazine about how Xerox have produced a “printable electronic circuit” using ink jet technology. This is the next step in 3D printing, which began with printers which were able to produce small plastic objects through injection moulding. Imagine “downloading” the plans to custom lego pieces and being able to print them off at home. Printers for metals and complex interlocking mechanisms also exists, which essentially digitises the manufacturing process. Changes that have occurred in the digital media industry, such as 0 distribution costs, unlimited supply and piracy may also shock the manufacturing world. 3D printing has already allowed some companies to shift prototype development of products from heavy industry into the office environment.

Printable electronics also paves the way for the production of ultra cheap electronics that can safely be printed onto disposable materials such as paper and cardboard. Such electronic circuits could store text and graphics on cereal boxes, frozen foods and anything else in a supermarket. Information about origin, expiry date or price could easily be stored for every single item in a shop. Passing through a checkout counter to pay for your goods may simply be a case of passing your entire basket through an RFID reader.

This reminds me of the second article, a talk entitled “When Blobjects Rule the Earth” made by Bruce Sterling in 2004 (make sure you click on “Siguiente” at the bottom to access the 2nd half of the article). In this talk, Bruce Sterling postulates a future filled with objects called Spimes, which are searchable objects which are precisely located in time or space. The example he gives may make the definition clearer:

Scenario: You buy a Spime with a credit card. Your account info is embedded in the transaction, including a special email address set up for your Spimes. After the purchase, a link is sent to you with customer support, relevant product data, history of ownership, geographies, manufacturing origins, ingredients, recipes for customization, and bluebook value. The spime is able to update its data in your database (via radio-frequency ID), to inform you of required service calls, with appropriate links to service centers. This removes guesswork and streamlines recycling.

Imagine everyday objects talking to you and constantly feeding back information about its condition. A vacuum cleaner that tells you when a component is broken and needs to be replaced, which incidentally, you could just download off the manufacturers website and print off at home. A water bottle that tells you where it needs to go for recycling and knows if you have carelessly discarded it at the side of the road. A jacket that feeds back information about its history; how often it was worn, the conditions under which it was used, the other items of clothing that it was combined with. Like Amazon recommendations on speed.

Of course such a future does bring with it certain problems. Spam, privacy issues, identity theft and vandalism to name a few. But as Bruce Sterling argues, in a finite world where resources are being stretched, objects will need to be tracked and located in order to be recycled.

We need to leap into another way of life. The technical impetus is here. We are changing, but to what end? The question we must face is: what do we want? We should want to abandon that which has no future. We should blow right through mere sustainability. We should desire a world of enhancement. That is what should come next. We should want to expand the options of those who will follow us. We don’t need more dead clutter to entomb in landfills. We need more options.

It needs to happen. It must happen. It is going to happen.