Production Democratization (Lit Review)

March 30, 2015


Joshua Pearce


Quantifying the Value of Open Source Hardware Development


PDF Document



The Gist

Joshua Pearce is a professor at Michigan Technological University, working extensively with open source hardware
He theorizes that there is a vast economic potential, untapped, which could be realized by investment in “FOSH”
To prove this hypothesis, which consists of several methods of calculation, he examines a case study of a 3D printed medical device and the vast savings, calculated with each of his methods

The Good

  • The 3D printing industry is nascent; there haven’t yet been many attempts to calculate its economic impact
  • Accurately modeling “savings” in a macroeconomic sense is difficult; Pearce’s creation of 3 equations is a smart approach to estimating an accurate range
  • The presence of a strong supporting case study gives immense credibility to 3D printing’s future

The Bad

  • Do we really need to invent another acronym for “open-source syringe pump”? Just say that!
  • The paper barely mentions that the pump depends on parts not yet printable, which seems anti-climatic
  • Difficult to digest the writing at times; there are many abstract hypothetical situations presented which aren’t needed because the argument is already so strong

The Questions

  • Is there another case study with comparable economic impact? If so, is it outside of healthcare?
  • All 3 equations seem to leave different parts of the cost out; could they ultimately be combined?
  • What would the savings look like if all parts could be printed? A huge limitation of 3D printers is that, as of today, they can only print plastic…when will we be able to print metal objects, or objects of a metal/plastic mixture?

One of the most frustrating aspects of living in a highly industrialized society is how many distinct things and parts that are produced and forgotten. Consider not the overall tangible product, like a car, but the thousands upon thousands of little pieces that make up the car. Everything from the left headlight exterior assembly, to the transmission fluid measurement rod, to the radio volume knob. All made and fit specifically to a particular model year of a particular vehicle, and most of the time made for a specific region of the world. And that represents but one microcosm of the incomprehensible world of objects that collectively make up all of our stuff.

Most of the time, it’s not hard to find a part if you need it. For cars, there are online stores, physical stores, parts warehouses, dealerships, and more. But what if that isn’t the case? Continuing the car example: Auto parts are expensive, take a long time to get delivered, and can require a high degree of technical knowledge depending on the part. Ultimately, all parts become unavailable because their production ends. One core idea in contemporary economics is the principle of supply and demand. Yet, increasingly, because of how many different things are produced, demand becomes specific and smaller. My car manufacturer isn’t going to produce a single radio volume knob because I suddenly need one this week because my dog ate it. Better hope I can find one at a junk yard…or is there a better solution?

Analogous to the black and white television of the 1950s, today’s 3D printers are quite primitive. Bulky, janky, expensive, and limited in capability. But they offer a glimpse into the possibility of the democratization of production. With today’s technology, I could easily create and produce a volume knob for my car, saving money, time, and frustration. Similarly (though much more importantly), Joshua Pearce’s case study involves vast savings from 3D printing a medical device. Medical equipment is notoriously expensive and specialized, two problems which 3D printing has the potential to solve.

3D printing is open by its nature. One can inspect and modify the schematics from which the object will be created. The material used to fabricate the object is known. Being able to not be beholden to other companies to produce specialized parts is an exciting, disruptive concept. Pearce provides excellent equations to calculate economic benefit, but what’s most amazing is how much is derived from just the object he described. Imagine the possibilities!

Rating: 5/5

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