A 3D printed bridge in Amsterdam

A new bridge! 3D printed! In Amsterdam:

I get emails from Google about 3D printing, and one of the prejudices I am acquiring about it is that it is at its best when finding better and cheaper ways to make rather small and very complicated components in small numbers, and when making other small and very complicated components possible which had previously not been possible. 3D printing’s most impressive achievements so far have been largely invisible to the naked eye.

However, architects and designers being architects and designers, 3D printing is also being used to make big objects, all in one go, like houses and … bridges, very visibly indeed.

This is being justified not on cost grounds, because there are as yet no cost benefits, but rather on the grounds of increased aesthetic possibilities.

Trouble is, I think this particular bridge is very ugly. There’s something disproportionate about it. It’s a huge palaver, just to have a footbridge. It’s like getting Frank Gehry to design your front door, or a dustbin, or a mowing machine. Like getting your outside toilet redone in Scottish Baronial. It’s just a little footbridge! It shouldn’t be drawing attention to itself in this absurdly grandiose fashion.

But, if I saw it in the flesh, so speak, maybe I’d get to like it.

Adding Wembley to the big model of London

i’ve always liked that big model of London at the Building Centre in Store Street. Well, it’s not there any more. But, relax. It’s moved, to King’s Cross.

And, there’s now more of it than there used to be:

And that’s the new bit, off to the north west of London.

To me, this is an interesting photo, because it highlights the imperfections of this model. I don’t know about you, but to me it looks like large swathes of north west London are flooded, especially, because of the accidents of lighting, in the top right of the photo. That being because both the buildings and the ground they are stuck on are both, actually, so very rudimentary. The land is just a shiny sheet of plastic. And there’s no up and down to be seen, of the land. Only of the buildings.

And those railway lines. They look like continuous railway stations, I reckon.

I look forward to the day when you can flap about over London, for about one fine day, in a helicopter, hoovering up photos, and then shovel all the photos into a 3D-printing machine which can then spit out the final model. And, that model then looks an order of magnitude more realistic than this one does. With all the right colours and shapes and heights, as big as you want, any scale you want, just as it would look from an airplane. That would really be something.

Meanwhile, this Store Street/King’s Cross model only hints at such excellence, in isolated moments when they decided to go all-out and make at least a few of the buildings look as they do in real life, instead of like they were made of Lego (before Lego started cheating by making special shaped bits).

For instance: Oh look, there’s Wembley Stadium, looking remarkably like actual Wembley Stadium, other than it being totally smothered in whiteness. Next Wednesday, in actual Wembley Stadium, there is apparently going to be a big international football match.

Good timing for me and Patrick Crozier, because we going to do another of our recorded conversations, this time about sport, this coming Tuesday. Patrick’s going to drop be at my place, and for first time in I don’t know how long we’ll be doing it face-to-face. However, we are going to use a newly acquired microphone, which Patrick fears may not work. So we’ll have to be careful we don’t say anything so clever that we regret not recording it properly, if that’s what happens. I’m sure we’ll be up to doing that.

Why electric cars will soon displace petrol cars (and some general thoughts on the significance of non-disruptive technology)

I have been keeping half an eye out for a piece of writing that summarises how, and why, electric cars have been on the up-and-up, and today such a piece presented itself to me, by Justin Rowlatt, the BBC’s Chief environment correspondent:

The first crude electric car was developed by the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson in the 1830s.

But it is only in the last few years that the technology has been available at the kind of prices that make it competitive.

The former Top Gear presenter and used car dealer Quentin Willson should know. He’s been driving electric vehicles for well over a decade.

He test-drove General Motors’ now infamous EV1 20 years ago. It cost a billion dollars to develop but was considered a dud by GM, which crushed all but a handful of the 1,000 or so vehicles it produced.

The EV1’s range was dreadful – about 50 miles for a normal driver – but Mr Willson was won over. “I remember thinking this is the future,” he told me.

He says he will never forget the disdain that radiated from fellow Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson when he showed him his first electric car, a Citroen C-Zero, a decade later.

“It was just completely: ‘You have done the most unspeakable thing and you have disgraced us all. Leave!’,” he says. Though he now concedes that you couldn’t have the heater on in the car because it decimated the range.

How things have changed. Mr Willson says he has no range anxiety with his latest electric car, a Tesla Model 3.

He says it will do almost 300 miles on a single charge and accelerates from 0-60 in 3.1 seconds.

“It is supremely comfortable, it’s airy, it’s bright. It’s just a complete joy. And I would unequivocally say to you now that I would never ever go back.”

We’ve seen massive improvements in the motors that drive electric vehicles, the computers that control them, charging systems and car design.

But the sea-change in performance Mr Willson has experienced is largely possible because of the improvements in the non-beating heart of the vehicles, the battery.

The most striking change is in prices.

Just a decade ago, it cost $1,000 per kilowatt hour of battery power, says Madeline Tyson, of the US-based clean energy research group, RMI. Now it is nudging $100 (£71).

That is reckoned to be the point at which they start to become cheaper to buy than equivalent internal combustion vehicles.

But, says Ms Tyson, when you factor in the cost of fuel and servicing – EVs need much less of that – many EVs are already cheaper than the petrol or diesel alternative.

At the same time energy density – how much power you can pack into each battery – continues to rise.

They are lasting longer too.

Last year the world’s first battery capable of powering a car for a million miles was unveiled by the Chinese battery maker, CATL.

Companies that run big fleets of cars like Uber and Lyft are leading the switchover, because the savings are greatest for cars with high mileage.

But, says Ms Tyson, as prices continue to tumble, retail customers will follow soon.

How fast will it happen?

The answer is very fast.

It’s not just a question of price, although too high a price for a new technology is of course a deal breaker. Equally important is that because of all these recent discoveries and improvements, electric cars will no longer be a disruptive technology. They will fit right into the road system we now have, without too much in the way of expensive infrastructure (think petrol stations), which means, crucially, that as each individual judges that now would be a good time to make the jump, that jump can be made without fuss.

See also, robot cars. These will require infrastructural upheaval on a grand scale, hence the endless delays, with robot cars having been just about to arrive in a big way for about as long as any of us can remember. Hell, even electric scooters are a disruptive technology, because even they require a whole new network of disruptive infrastructure for them to work without constant fatalities and injuries. But these electric cars will be no harder to fit on the roads than regular cars already are.

If you’ve been paying any attention to this change, you will know that electric vehicles are, of course, already with us. If, like me, you have recently taken a taxi ride or a bus ride, and realised that stopping and starting have recently become unnaturally quiet and smooth, then you’ve already travelled in an at least partly electric vehicle, on a regular road.

When a technology arrives without half the people looking at it realising that that’s what it even is, that’s non-disruptive. Because of personal computers, a whole generation has been spouting drivel about the joys of disruptive technology, but the non-disruptive kind is far more transformative. Because, to take the example of electric cars, who knows what they will end up doing, once everyone but a few freakish petrol-headed hobbyists have bought into the basic idea. Eventually, once electric cars have entirely replaced regular cars, there will then be all sorts of disruptive consequences of that having happened, on all manner of other processes and experiences. In the longer run, historians may perhaps decide that the long term significance of electric cars was that they made it possible for cars to be properly robotised, in a non-disruptive way as far as the mere roads are concerned, step by small step, bit by bit. But all of that is still to come.

Another totally non-disruptive technology is 3D printing. Despite all the crap you may have read about 3D printing transforming everything, 3D printing is not now nor is it ever going to be transforming home or work life, the way personal computers have. 3D printing is, quite simply, a new way to make stuff, to add to all the other tricks and turns that stuff-makers have been using down the centuries. Unless you are intimately involved in manufacturing, you could have ignored this new technology completely, just as you may have been ignoring electric cars. Yet 3D printing is already huge.

3D-printed fake rhino horns

Suddenly I am finding all kinds of interesting animals-related stuff.

This, for instance:

My rule about Friday being my day for animals-related stuff has morphed, in my head, into the rule that I am not allowed to post animals-related stuff on any other day except Friday. Crackers. This is my blog and I can do what I like with it. But, it would seem that I can’t.

More cruelty-free meat news from Israel

From the Daily Mail:

A juicy ribeye steak is a treat for many, but meat eating is increasingly falling out of fashion due to ethical and environmental concerns.

Now, an Israeli company has revealed the world’s first ever 3D bioprinted ribeye made with real cow cells, and it is completely cruelty and slaughter-free.

Scientists took swabs from two cows, cultivated them in a lab, and pieced them all together to form a replica steak.

What is it about artificial meat and Israel? Maybe it’s just that Israel happens to be a very inventive place just now, and whatever innovation you happen to be a spotter of, you’ll find yourself being directed towards Israel.

I wonder if the pariah status of the state of Israel is some kind of cause of this super-inventiveness, if that’s what it is. If so, it reminds me of how religious non-conformists in Britain, similarly cut off from polite society, were so heavily involved in the Industrial Revolution.

Robot dog progress

Researchers publish open-source, lower cost design for 3D printed robot dog.

What are the future applications of of such a “dog”? Some rather unconvincing tasks are mentioned in the above report, like hanging about in a forest “monitoring” animals. But that sounds like green-friendly make-work to me.

Warfare in complicated terrain does seem like an obvious application. Exploring Mars, in other words, and then fighting other robots for the control of Mars. And meanwhile filming it all, for entertainment purposes?

Airplanes flew for quite a long time before they found a major use for them, which was to spy on opposing armies and to make big guns cleverer, and then to fight and kill other airplanes. Then came high tech sport, in the form of air races, which was really just research and development for better and faster war planes.

Around then, also, very tentatively, airplanes began to deliver letters. And then, airplanes began to deliver people, which was to say very rich people. Eventually, half a century after they first flew, airplanes became part of the good life for regular humans.

Robot dogs look like they might follow a similar path. As of now, robot dogs are the robot equivalent of the useless and clumsy contraptions that airplanes were in the nineteen-noughts, good only for lunatics in goggles to play with.

Comments of how these weird creatures might actually make themselves useful, more quickly and less destructively than my grumpy pessimism just said, would be most welcome.

For starters, if these things are ever going to be liked by humans, they’re going to need heads, heads that are more than merely decorative which gather and transmit information. Then, maybe (and I seem to recall speculating along these lines at my long-lost Education Blog): child minding? A combination of such robot-human interaction and transport? Like a sort of super-intelligent horse?

3D printing isn’t the only game in town

Incoming from Rob:

Hi Brian,

I saw this and thought of you:

3D printing isn’t the only game in town. This web site seems to make it easier to get access to milling machines. Upload your CAD file and get an instant quote. I’m not sure how expensive it is for one-off jobs but I can imagine it getting cheaper and easier over time.

“This” being a network of enterprises which, between them, can offer: CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, plastic 3D printing, metal 3D printing, urethane casting, and injection molding.

The point being that additive manufacturing, aka 3D printing, is not the only way to make something. There’s also all these other ways, such as CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machining, that being subtractive manufacturing.

3D printing is not “disruptive”. It is an addition to the repertoire of traditional manufacturers. It offers manufacturers another way to do some of the things they already do, and a few other things they don’t now do.

Anyone can 3D print just about anything, just about anywhere. But just because you can, that doesn’t mean it makes a blind bit of sense for you to actually do this. What if someone else can do it, far better, far cheaper, in some other place, some other way, maybe in a much more trad, tried-and-tested way?

This website puts you in touch with who all those other people might be. As Rob says, It makes manufacturing that little bit easier and quicker to arrange, and over time, ever more so.