Cowboy Control Peels
What do you call a person who uses artifice and cunning to make unfounded promises of untold millions if only you would give them the money to implement their crazy idea? What if they return months later with the millions gone up in smoke and nothing to show for it? What if they do this trick again and again the money vapourizes every time? You'd probably call this person a fraudster. Unless you are in Silicon Valley, then you'd call him a serial entrepreneur.
Social context is a beautiful thing. We are a function of those who surround us. We are a sum total of our anecdotes. Formed by those that we interact with and moulded by continual experience. A shared culture created with the narcissism of minor difference. Our learning and view of self compounded but never subject to a second opinion. Our filter bubbles determine which information we take in while certain facts become lenses. A fact once seemingly established in any certain group reinforced by their every interaction becomes a lens through which they see the world. Not a mere point of information but rather, spectacles through which we determine further information. Our success leads to more success while confirmation biases strengthen within us, bending the light. We are not cognisant of the spot sizes of our lasers and distortion in our lenses. Scanning and building, plowing through the powder bed, no closed loop control. When exactly does the AM machine realise it has a failed build? When does it notice that the chicks have fallen out of the nest? Never, it rolls the rock up the hill, like Sisyphus happy in its repetitive labor, each pass indistinguishable from the next.
There is a line between fraud and entrepreneurship. A line that can be as thin as the layers on an Aerosol Jet or as fat as the margins on AM materials. This line varies in thickness due to intent. And standing from afar intent is a difficult thing to ascertain. Is someone simply out of their depth, too optimistic or wilfully engaging in unethical behaviour? I know you see this too, the emerging hucksters and confidence men. There are people who on Kickstarter raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for projects can not, as presented, work. Other people making claims that are unfounded and promises that they will be unable to fulfil. Where does one draw the line and step up to speak up? When exactly do we stop muttering amongst ourselves in our magical little community and tell the 'muggles' what the deal is?
What if we look at another example. Guns. I know you're longing to talk and read more about them. Bereft as you have been of gun 3D printing conversation with colleagues, aunts at parties, your family, cab drivers & every person you've met recently who has inquired about your work. Whatever your thoughts on freedom or gun control, was there a point where people should have spoken up earlier than they did? Where more of you should have said something? I can fully understand a reticence to distance yourself from the bitter US gun control debate, a supremely divisive issue that is not really a debate at all but a continual reiteration of immutable talking points sometimes stated at louder volume. But, couldn't people have pointed out that the engineering was unsound? Couldn't we have at least en masse made it clear to the media that this thing was inherently dangerous to the operator? Or could people have made it clear through giving “off the record” and background information to the media that the path the “3D printing guns” news story was going on was not matching the reality on the ground? Could people approached for interviews have pointed out that it was clear that this was a self-promotional stunt by an individual who had not thought through his actions or their effects and did not seem intent on accomplishing the things he said he was but rather solely was interested in increasing his own notoriety? Couldn't you have “off the record” noted that this guy is clearly a couple of cans short of a six-pack, not playing with a full deck, a few triangles short of an STL?
If we were just making crackers or crankshafts we'd have a moral obligation to our customers and general concerns for the health and safety of our products. But, we work in an industry where our machines & services can be used to make many things. We have in our hands a technology that potentially can be used by anyone to make anything they want. Given enough eyeballs, all things are shallow. And we know that it will not in any way be possible to regulate the things made with AM machines. Anything that can be invented will be invented eventually and could be made by anyone. If this is the logical terminus of the path we are all on, shouldn't we come up with a collective response to irresponsible usage of our machines and services now? Pro Tip: If I make a pen and someone writes hate speech with it, no one will criticise me or sue me for manufacturing pens. This is a question of personal responsibility and not the creative potential of the device itself. This sounds a lot better than, “3D printers don't kill people, people do.”
Sooner or later we will have to grapple with this. Will it blow over every time? Will the head in the sand policy work if your technology is in some way used for a crime? If a Glock is used to rob a bank no journalist will think to use dwindling ad revenue to call Austria. But, you can bet your machine capacity that the first time any 3D printing technology is used for nefarious purposes your phone will be ringing off the hook. What will your response be then? Isn't it time for us as an industry to create a single unified response to idiots doing idiotic things with 3D printers? Isn't it time we came up with criteria for, needless and indefensible practices in 3D printing that do not sufficiently supplement the technology or provide for sufficient freedom of expression but are rather the manufacturing equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre? Isn't it time now to, before it is too late, have an explanation for the muggles of the dangers of magic? Is it ethical and intelligent of us to all share similar opinions with our brethren but stay mum to the outside world? Or would some of you rather relish having a stab at doing this live on CNN at one point?
The people who get to fumble or catch this ball will be the leaders in our industry. Many in the industrial AM business are part of a microculture. A globe spanning tightly networked tiny group of people who all know each other and largely share the same individual goals as well as share social context and a collective history. At the center of these groups are the patententrepreneurs. My long shorthand for a particular type of person, a driven university researcher working in an unexplored field who discovers a way to make something. You know who these people are. Brainstorm a few first names for yourself now. He develops this from an experiment into a technology. From proof of concept into a business. He obtains research funding, more funding, investment, employees and finally a successful business. Along the way he learns about accounting, HR, management, marketing while year after year the distant dream he saw in that lab creeps closer. He masters many skills and is a Renaissance businessman proven time and again to have predicted the coin flip correctly and mastered things miles from his field. He goes from being a lone dreamer to a lauded industrialist. A seed sowed turns into a sapling, then a tree. He was perhaps once tightrope walking this line of overconfidence and uncertainty. Hard work and vision though have paid of and the future is exactly as you said it was. And you are now on top of the world. If you are such a visionary, I'm speaking directly to you now. I'll refrain from single syllable singling you all out though, to make it less confrontational (but the brainstorming rest of us have single syllable found 8 or more of you). You too are hemmed in by your social context, determined like the other examples of this article. Furthermore, the towering redwoods of your accomplishments are crowding out the light. Confirmation bias, redoubled by every growing victory. A leader with no closed loop control.
In 1951 An Wang founded Wang Laboratories and was a central figure that took most of the decisions at the computer maker that once had $3b in revenues. Wang was a visionary that made it big taking correct decision after correct decision. In the 1980's Wang bet on the continued prevalence of dedicated word processors instead of PCs as well as a bet on proprietary software rather than standards. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992.
Apple had a similar near death experience in the same period due to a visionary leader who was very command and control and relied on his vision and proprietary software combined with hardware. The Apple story today is one of a dominant cash rich company that rules many markets and is one of the wealthiest in the world. (until they took out this stupid $17b loan in order to return $100b to investors. The public company equivalent to taking out a loan to facilitate blowing your savings on shoes you give to others because you have too much money to spend on your future. In order to assuage the fears of people worried about your future and super interested in getting free shoes from you, now. For which they will be super grateful now but will leave you hanging soon. But, such is life for those who have the tempting apple, a company so seductive it eclipses the fruit.)
Apple is considered an unmitigated success, Wang a disaster. The curse of survivorship bias leads us to forget the failures and lionise the winners. We look at this visionary and laud his tight integration of hardware and software while forgetting the many who failed doing similar things. We think that history is a collection of the stories of great men and great events whist we let slip from our memory the simple fact that tiny differences have a disproportionate effect on outcomes and occur at random moments in time. For every Usain Bolt, there are tens of thousands of wayward currents in the clouds.
Our culture, friends, colleagues, fellow travellers, the information that we chose to process, the information that we build upon, the lenses through which we see the world, our filter bubbles and our confirmation biases shape our view of reality. The chummy TCT gatherings and Euromold drinks determine how we see things. Our take on the world is collectively influenced and created. And we are but a small group of people, many of which know each others names. We are a collective wave, a single moon to guide us, intersecting with a rip tide. If we like it of not, the fools and charlatans are using our tools and the hype of our potential to make a name for themselves. If we know it or not, we are formed by those around us and unable to properly perceive the world as it is. We are insular and duck down when the hard questions start to fly, as bullets 'tjchkouw' overhead we cower. In my opinion, we have three central responsibilities as people working in this industry today. We must above all else guide and improve this technology so that it enables mankind to make better things and make things better. We must do so while mitigating the misuse of our technology for evil. And we must realize that we are a CO2 laser bright while blind and unable to discern its own accuracy. No closed loop control.
There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.
- Donald Rumsfeld.