The Processor Wars

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2010

There are many ways to make a profit; one of them is to make a better product than the competition, but sometimes that alone is not enough, especially when you make the components of complex devices like computers. So maybe you could think about building loopholes into your product that make the competition’s product look inferior when used in the same system? There are suggestions that’s what nVidia has been doing:

PhysX is designed to make it easy for developers to add high-quality physics simulation to their games, so that cloth drapes the way it should, balls bounce realistically, and smoke and fragments (mostly from exploding barrels) fly apart in a lifelike manner. In recognition of the fact that game developers, by and large, don’t bother to release PC-only titles anymore, NVIDIA also wisely ported PhysX to the leading game consoles, where it runs quite well on console hardware.

If there’s no NVIDIA GPU in a gamer’s system, PhysX will default to running on the CPU, but it doesn’t run very well there. You might think that the CPU’s performance deficit is due simply to the fact that GPUs are far superior at physics emulation, and that the CPU’s poor showing on PhysX is just more evidence that the GPU is really the component best-equipped to give gamers realism.

Some early investigations into PhysX performance showed that the library uses only a single thread when it runs on a CPU. This is a shocker for two reasons. First, the workload is highly parallelizable, so there’s no technical reason for it not to use as many threads as possible; and second, it uses hundreds of threads when it runs on an NVIDIA GPU. So the fact that it runs single-threaded on the CPU is evidence of neglect on NVIDIA’s part at the very least, and possibly malign neglect at that.

Whether it is malign remains to be seen (the use of Occam’s Razor may well apply here, but then again it may not), but this is still an interesting development: in a world where most new inventions are part of larger systems, the battle for sales isn’t simply a matter of making your own product better. Granted, talking down the value of a competitor’s product has been a core strategy of public relations for years, but actually attenuating that value in deployment strikes me as being something pretty new, if only because it wasn’t really possible before. Unless anyone can suggest a situation where this has happened before?


Chris Anderson on the “new industrial revolution” of bespoke manufacturing

Paul Raven @ 27-01-2010

Wired ed-in-chief Chris Anderson emerges from the back rooms once again with a lengthy piece lauding what he calls “the next industrial revolution” – which is, in essence, the imminent explosion of small companies using modern fabrication equipment and outsourcing techniques whose agility and low overheads will enable them to sweep away the old guard of corporate giants. [image by oskay]

That’s the theory, anyway, and it should be fairly familiar to regular Futurismic readers: we’re talking consumer-price-point 3D design software; 3D printing and fabrication; outsourced manufacturing; garage-industry electronics assembly techniques; open-source designs; hardware and software hacking; crowdsourcing for ideas, designs and feedback. You should read the whole thing, but here’s a slice that captures the spirit:

Here’s the history of two decades in one sentence: If the past 10 years have been about discovering post-institutional social models on the Web, then the next 10 years will be about applying them to the real world.

This story is about the next 10 years.

Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.

Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.

The tools of factory production, from electronics assembly to 3-D printing, are now available to individuals, in batches as small as a single unit. Anybody with an idea and a little expertise can set assembly lines in China into motion with nothing more than some keystrokes on their laptop. A few days later, a prototype will be at their door, and once it all checks out, they can push a few more buttons and be in full production, making hundreds, thousands, or more. They can become a virtual micro-factory, able to design and sell goods without any infrastructure or even inventory; products can be assembled and drop-shipped by contractors who serve hundreds of such customers simultaneously.

Today, micro-factories make everything from cars to bike components to bespoke furniture in any design you can imagine. The collective potential of a million garage tinkerers is about to be unleashed on the global markets, as ideas go straight into production, no financing or tooling required. “Three guys with laptops” used to describe a Web startup. Now it describes a hardware company, too.

From a globalist perspective, it’s pretty optimistic – as you might expect from the guy who came up with the concept of the Long Tail. That said, it’s not what the big corporations want to hear… and that’s probably the main stumbling block between the here and now and Anderson’s entreprenurial utopia. It’s become embarassingly obvious how much of a hold corporate America has over the engines of policy, and it probably won’t take much effort to spin Anderson’s vision into a dark and unpatriotic future where American manufacturing jobs are sent overseas (to those sneaky Chinese, no less!), garage makers are enemies of freedom (and probably a glass fiber’s breadth from becoming terrorists), and the people’s right to not be shafted by those who already hold all the aces is swept under the carpet so as to maintain a precarious economic status quo.

OK, so I’m overstating for effect, there… but you can see where I’m going with this, I hope. Given the staggering levels of obfuscation and deceit involved with the US healthcare reforms, I can’t see Anderson’s revolution happening without some serious back-room dealing and political psy-ops from those who stand to lose the most from it. And I doubt it will be a uniquely American problem, either; the government to which I pay my taxes is just as compromised, albeit in slightly different ways, and the richer countries of the Old World are all in the same boat.

What remains to be seen is whether Anderson’s maker revolution is an economic inevitability or an avoidable alternative. It’ll come as no surprise to most of you who read here regularly that I’d like nothing more than to see the bloated corporate behemoths of the world get their shoes wet while doing a King Canute impersonation, but only time will tell. This is one story where we can’t just skip to the last page to find out the ending; let’s just hope we don’t get squashed by the plot mechanics, eh? 🙂


The Product Bay – piracy goes 3D

Paul Raven @ 21-01-2010

Well, it was bound to happen – hell, Sven’s been writing columns that skirt around the idea for ages. Here’s the lowdown: 3D printing is maturing quickly, and 3D scanning isn’t far behind, meaning that material objects can be stored and transmitted as digital data. Digital data can be shared in many different ways, and – as the recording industry has learned the hard way – illicit filesharing is, for all intents and purposes, an unclosable Pandora’s box. So what’s to stop people trading, sharing and printing off copies of copyright-controlled objects – shoes, clothing, homeware, car parts, whatever?

The answer – nothing. Nothing at all. Welcome to The Product Bay:

RepRap and other 3D printers are the future. There’s no question about it. With the proud tradition from The Pirate Bay, we want to take all of this to the next level. TPB will be TPB, but for real life objects. For now, visit Thingiverse who already understands this.

We want you to download those new jeans.

We want you to share those new shoes.

It’s possible, let’s make it happen.

Granted, The Product Bay is just a one-page site with a provocative message, and I rather suspect it has been launched with the purpose of starting a conversation more than any real hope of kicking off the world’s first tracker site for digital files of real-world objects… but it’s also a harbinger of things to come, and the big-brand companies that aren’t scared by the idea should probably start planning for the worst. It’s not like there’s been no warning, after all. [via Fabbaloo]


One hundred thousand garages: the distributed future of fabrication?

Paul Raven @ 24-09-2009

3D printer in actionAs Cory Doctorow’s new novel Makers is being serialised over at Tor.com, reality seems to be doing its best to catch up with the ideas he’s based it upon.

Fabbaloo points us to the 100kGarages.com project, a collaboration between citizen-fabbing startup Ponoko and the CNC router company ShopBot that aims to distribute the actual printing-out of people’s designs to a network of small “garages” – small local shops with the necessary hardware to handle the designs as developed by customers at Ponoko. [image by CabFabLab]

These new technologies make practical and possible doing more of our production and manufacturing in small distributed facilities, as small as our garages, and close to where the product is needed. Most importantly our new methods for collaboration and sharing means that we don’t have to do it all by ourselves … that designers with creative ideas but without the capability to see their designs become real can work with fabricators that might not have the design skills that they need but do have the equipment and the skills and orientation that’s needed to turn ideas into reality … that those who just want to get stuff made or get their ideas realized can work with the Makers/designers who can help them create the plans and the local fabricators who fulfill them.

[…]

To get this started ShopBot Tools, Makers of popular tools for digital fabrication and Ponoko, who are reinventing how goods are designed, made and distributed, are teaming-up to create a network of workshops and designers, with resources and infrastructure to help facilitate “rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.” Using grass roots enterprise and ingenuity this community can help get us back in action, whether it’s to modernize school buildings and infrastructure, develop energy-saving alternatives, or simply produce great new products for our homes and businesses.

There are thousands of ShopBot digital-fabrication (CNC) tools in garages and small shops across the country, ready to locally fabricate the components needed to address our energy and environmental challenges and to locally produce items needed to enhance daily living, work, and business. Ponoko’s web methodologies offer people who want to get things made an environment that integrates designers and inventors with ShopBot fabricators. Multiple paths for getting from idea to object, part, component, or product are possible in a dynamic network like this, where ideas can be realized in immediate distributed production and where production activities can provide feedback to improve designs.

100kGarages admit that, yes, it’s a smidgen technoutopian, and it’s also an experiment – but the notion of seeding a grassroots manufacturing infrastructure seems to be not just timely but eminently plausible. Might plans like this will provide the much-needed sea-change necessary to rescue the US economy and set it on a path to long-term stability?


Fabbing becoming price-competitive

Paul Raven @ 17-07-2009

Via Fabbaloo comes news that big businesses are starting to wake up to the savings they can make with 3D printing and rapid prototyping technology. Granted, this is a press release from a company that makes 3D printers, but the solid numbers that they’re quoting with respect to shoe giants Converse speak more loudly than the corporate back-patting:

Converse says its ZPrinters can produce a shoe model in two hours, or nearly 30 times faster than an ABS printer. ZPrinting has also helped:

  • Eliminate eight annual trips to Asia for design consultations at a cost of up to $12,000 per person for each trip;
  • Cut tooling costs from $350,000 in 2006 to $150,000 in 2008 by using ZPrinted models to winnow designs; and
  • Transform the way the company does business by bringing 3D shoe models to key accounts and producing models on demand.

“We’re seeing new prototypes in hours and cutting weeks off our design cycle,” said Bryan Cioffi, manager of digital product creation at Converse of N. Andover, Mass, USA. “Last night’s sketches become tangible color models that we can pass around at this morning’s meeting. Our ZPrinter has become a prototyping center in its own right, and it’s helping us get better products to market more quickly for less money.”

That technology is itself becoming cheaper by the month, so we can expect many other manufacturers to clamber aboard the fabbing train as they attempt to rebuild after the economic slump.

But that same capability may actually spell the doom of corporate giants like Converse. After all, when every town has a 3D print-shop, why pay Converse for a new pair of trainers that they’ve designed when you can just clone their basic design files from a torrent, make some unique tweaks and print out a custom sneaker of your own for a comparable (or perhaps even lower) price?


« Previous PageNext Page »