In Re RepRap

This was supposed to be a comment on Geoff G’s RepRap post, below; but it got long enough that I decided to make a post of it instead.  These are my first reactions to the concept:

1.  Final effects depend, to some extent, upon the optimal size of individual RepRaps.  This, in turn, will depend upon the costs (both amortized capital cost & operating costs) of a given RepRap unit, as compared with the resultant savings in labor & transportation costs.

2.  Unless $700 RepRaps are the garage-sized, I doubt we’ll see the complete demise of manufacturing.  Something the size of a cabinet or a closet could probably handle most smaller consumer goods (anything CDs to PCs to books, clothing, computers, tupperware); but larger stuff (e.g., furniture, appliances, cars) would probably keep manufacturing on indefinite life support.  The degree of localization among remaining manufacturers would depend on the factors mentioned in #1.

3.  Raw materials:  Given the increased recycling made possible by RepRaps, I could see raw materials consumption decreasing; but I’m not sure by how much.  Don’t see any reason for increased localization of the remaining raw-materials production, however.  RepRaps wouldn’t affect the distribution of iron or titanium or uranium ore one bit.

[Note:  insofar as RepRap-induced recycling reduces US dependence upon raw materials imported from unstable and/or hostile areas, this strikes me as a good thing.  One less reason for foreign entanglements.]

4.  Transportation Effects:  Ultimate effect on the transportation industry, at first cut, would be proportional to RepRap-induced recycling’s effect upon raw materials industries.  Assume, arguendo, that such recycling is negligible.  (This would probably not be the case; however, such an assumption is necessary to show the dependence of post-RepRap transportation industry upon demand for raw materials.)  In such an instance, even assuming the complete demise of manufacturing, there’d still be demand for the raw materials consumed by RepRaps.  Though there might be some net reduction owing to decreased usage of containers, the amount of _mass_ moved by the transportation industry wouldn’t change by much; instead of moving a mass of finished goods, the industry would be moving the same mass of raw materials.  Net volumes transported probably would decrease, since presumably raw materials would be less bulky than finished products.  Whether (and if so, how much) this would reduce demand for transportation is unclear to me.

5.  Energy Effects:  These would depend on RepRap’s effects on Nos. 2-4.  WRT manufacturing & raw materials, RepRap’s net effect depends on its efficiency relative to current methods of manufacturing & raw materials extraction/refining.  A RepRap-induced decline in transportation would correspondingly reduce energy consumption.  2006 US oil consumption was ~42 EJ (*), of which freight transportation accounted for 6 EJ (**), or 15%.  An improvement, but not revolutionary.

6.  Agriculture:  Unless there’s a food-preparation version of RepRap (ala ST:TNG), I’m not sure why RepRap would lead to increased localization of agriculture.  Regardless of whether the current dominance of factory farming, agribusiness, etc., is the result of regulations & subsidies; or of simple economies of scale; such factors strike me as largely impervious to RepRap’s effects on manufacturing.

7.  Employment Effects:  I’d characterize these as “moderate” (relatively speaking).  According to Table 740 of the 2010 Statistical Abstract, total 2007 US employment was ~213 mil.  Of these, 6.2% worked were in manufacturing, 3% in wholesale, 7.3% in retail, & 2.1% in transportation/warehousing.  Even assuming the complete demise of these sectors (something that, for reasons mentioned above, I think unlikely), we’re still talking about “only” ~20% of the workforce.  Yes, that’s significant; OTOH, ISTM RepRap proliferation would still leave the vast majority of us employed.

And now back to reading about the Emancipation Proclamation….

(*) See Energy Information Administration, “2008 Annual Energy Review”, Table 1.3.

(**) Bureau of Transportation Statistics, “National Transportation Statistics”, Table 4-5.

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