Saturday, 13 October, 2001

The Thing Factory

A group of us at work get together at least once a week for what we call "Future Tuesday."  We go to lunch and discuss the future, or the past if we think it has relevance to a "future" topic.  It's not always on Tuesday, but we're not too picky.  Yesterday one of the group mentioned an idea that I call The Thing Factory.  It's a fascinating idea to play with.

Think of all the things we currently have that consist of simple shapes made of plastic, wood, fiberglass and other composites, or cheap metals.  Things like book shelves, CD racks, picture frames, plates, cutlery, knick-knacks, chairs, doors, tables, etc.  I have identified dozens of such things taking up space throughout the house.  Heck, Saturn makes reasonably indestructible body panels out of composite material.

Now, imagine that all of these Things could be made out of a single material--call it "Stuff"--that can be cut, lathed, sculpted, or molded.  Imagine further that you could go to a Thing Factory, enter the drawings for one of these Things into a computer, and computer-controlled machinery cuts, sculpts, or molds that Thing out of a big block of Stuff.  Your credit card is charged for the price of the Stuff (so much per pound), and also a fee based on the amount of time and resources it took to make the Thing.  You want your bookshelf to have a faux maple finish?  No problem.  The shelves are made from Stuff, and so is the laminate that gets glued to the surfaces, although the laminate is dyed to look like maple.

No longer would Target need to stock three copies each of dozens of different picture frames.  All they'd need is copies of drawings for every type of picture frame known, and their Thing Factory could make one up in an instant.

The other cool thing about Stuff is that it is 100% recyclable.  One major problem with recycling today is that it's hard to get people to do it because they can't see a direct benefit.  But if Stuff was directly recyclable by the Thing Factory, then you could take your used or broken Things down to the Factory, present them for recycling, and get credit for the Stuff.  Take your broken shelf down to the Factory, present it for recycling, get full credit for the Stuff that it takes to make a replacement.  You have a direct, tangible benefit of recycling.

Imagine if all the fast food places made those silly plastic and paper cups out of Stuff.  A trash sorter could easily separate the cups from the rest of the garbage, and a specialized on-site Thing Factory could make new cups every night from the recycled Stuff.  That alone would make a noticeable dent in the amount of garbage that goes into our nation's landfills.

Is any of this even remotely possible today?