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November 15, 2009

Industrial Revolution v2.0

Interesting piece here in the WSJ from a couple of days ago. It kind of supports what I've been saying for a while now about America's direction in the 21st century -- we're not quite as "stick a fork in our ass and turn us over done" and washed up as some (*cough* democrats *cough*) would have people believe.

There seems to be a new interest afoot in tinkering and coming up with creative new "stuff" that exists in the physical world rather than as a bunch of electrons floating around in a CPU and some memory

...There were 27% more undergraduates who earned mechanical-engineering degrees in 2008 than in 2003, according to the American Association of Engineering Societies. Over the same period, the number of computer-engineering graduates slipped by 31%...
The tinkering bug has always been one of America's greatest assets in the past. We got to where we are today because a lot of people in the 1800's and early 1900's fiddled around with a lot of shit. They failed a lot, but quite a few stumbled onto things that defined whole industries.

Traditionally, Americans haven't been terribly risk averse as a people - we're not afraid to grab for the brass ring and maybe fail. In some other cultures, failure is a black mark, a personal stain that persists for a very long time. In the USA, a failure (ex. Microsoft "Bob") is forgotten the moment you produce the next winner. People crack jokes about "Bob", but Bob's past failure doesn't represent an ongoing liability for Microsoft today.

Engineering schools across the country report students are showing an enthusiasm for hands-on work that hasn't been seen in years. Workshops for people to share tools and ideas -- called "hackerspaces" -- are popping up all over the country; there are 124 hackerspaces in the U.S., according to a member-run group that keeps track, up from a handful at the start of last year.
The WSJ piece seems to focus mainly on (electro)mechanical/robotic type efforts, but there are other R&D areas that also lend themselves to "small" efforts thanks to the declining price of equipment and a lot of used gear hitting the surplus markets due to the recession and business closings. The crew I'm with is very small, just a few guys operating self funded so far, but we've come up with some pretty exciting manufacturing techniques and scientific discoveries. We're still making "machines" of a sort, they just operate at the molecular and atomic level. Our "gear" would easily fit in an ordinary living room or two car garage with room to spare (if you had 3-phase power for the laser's power supply).

Its not too hard to see a day in the not too distant future when an "experimenter" will have gear available for under $100K that sits on a desktop that can do what you need a multi-billion dollar semiconductor fab to do today.

Basically, what I'm trying to say, is I believe we're on the brink of a new "Permian Explosion" of creative R&D that simply wasn't possible say 40 years ago due to the cost and size of equipment.

digg this
posted by Purp at 03:35 AM

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