Car broke down in the desert? Print yourself a wrench

Utterly flabbergasting, this is. (Yoda would agree… no, wait, Yoda probably has one of these in his kitchen.) A recent Economist issue discussed 3-D printing with a cover image of a working violin they said had been created on such a printer. Not the strings and some other parts unsuited to plastic, but the body and most of the rest were printed, then then assembled, their lovely digital editor later told me. [April 2011 update: He recently tweeted this video of the violin being played.]

Yeah. So. Here is a WORKING crescent wrench. Printed in an hour and a half, on a machine that is supposed to cost about $1000. Moving parts. No assembly.

Judging by the YouTube comments, nobody else believes this either — so much so that Snopes, the urban legends folks, tracked it down. And verified it.

See, I have a dream. It’s not a really great dream as such things go. But here it is. For years I’ve wondered about the sheer numbers of duplicate items that must have to be manufactured in order that John Q. Cardriver can go into the auto parts store down the street and choose from six different cupholders. And the number of duplicate stores that have to be built in order for one to be just down the block from Johnny when he needs it.  Of course market forces control all this.  But how many extra cupholders do you have to manufacture so that one — not even one, but a choice of several ones — is waiting for you down the block?  What if nobody ever buys the other five?

OK, that was more of a question than a dream. So here’s the dream: Aside from the utterly incredible effect the Internet is having on the flow of information, surely at some point it must also change manufacturing, and retail buildings. Shopping on the Internet can be so incredibly efficient — you choose what you want, after researching its features, comparing prices and reading dozens of reviews, and then just the one single item you want is shipped to you. If you figure the trucks were going to be driving that route anyway… doesn’t this eventually mean that we will be able to shut down some of the ninety kabillion ugly* urban retail businesses?

Some things, of course not. Fresh groceries. Emergency items (like, say, spark plugs, instead of that frivolous cupholder). Convenience items like aspirin… and we’re always going to want to try on shoes. But already clothing companies are offering free shipping “both ways,” so you can order five items, try ’em on and return three. I know I’m way oversimplifying here… But aren’t we going to be able to do without a “bed and bath” store every two miles?  (And why do we have branch banks at all, much less the four banks per block that are popping up at a furious rate?)

* Most buildings are ugly because functional is cheap, and attractive design is expensive. So you don’t get good-looking buildings until the point at which it becomes profitable to have your building look good. The term for “architecture” that just kind of happens is vernacular architecture, although it appears to me they’d rather use that term for pretty things like Saltillo tile and mashrabiya screens, as opposed to the gravel-on-tar-paper roof of your local Stop-N-Rob.

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