There is a discussion going on in the Flat Black group page on Facebook that arises out of the discussion here about Development Levels. In that discussion the question was asked as to which in considered to be a higher tech level “a craftsman with a fabber/3Dprinter making the Gizmopie necessary for his village in his blacksmith/fabber shop, or a human/robot in big conveyor like assembly line who makes a specialized part which is assembled to make the Gizmopie in mass quantities for cheap”.
The question of tech level is moot, since Flat Black doesn’t deal in tech levels. What Flat Black does have is dev levels, and there the answer is that having the village craftsman make your gizmopie is a low-dev way of doing things even though his fabber/3D printer is higher tech level than a gizmopie. And in Flat Black everything is to an overwhelming extent done the high-dev way because it is much cheaper. Things that would not be affordable if they are made without specialisation and exchange are cheap and plentiful because of a mind-boggling degree of specialisation and exchange that is made possible by markets containing tens of billions of consumers and the exploitation of the economies of staggering scale.
A village craftsman in Flat Black probably doesn’t make a gizmopie at all, because people buy them imported for less than what he would have to pay for the materials. But if he had to, he would take some high-performance polymers imported from a low-dev world² and run them through his additive compositor to make the mechanical bits, install photonic quantum logic from Tau Ceti and a bioencabulator from Simanta, then flash the logic with firmware that was programmed on Old Earth and downloaded from an Imperial comms satellite, and charge you fifty simoleons. He doesn’t have a matter fabber that could make a photonic logic on the spot, because to scribe the features of a photonic logic into the substrate you need to focus gamma rays to a spot size of 2 nm, which requires grazing-incidence mirrors with a focal length of half a kilometre, in hard vacuum. One of Stephenson’s matter compilers could do it by atomic epitaxy. A Star Trek replicator could do it with TRANSPORTER TECHNOLOGY™.
But those things don’t work in Flat Black. Dr Doyle and Dr Watson would like to tell you why.
The account of Dr Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, KStJ, DL, MD
If Flat Black featured replicators such as Clarke described, transporter-based replicators, matter compilers like those in The Diamond Age, or GURPS-style nanofacs etc., then there would be no role for interstellar trade. So there would be little call for interstellar transport and no revenue for the Empire. More-or-less cosmopolitan PCs would have few causes and little opportunity to visit exotic worlds with strange societies on them. That would be a bad design choice.
It doesn’t matter whether you think that Clarkean replicators are likely, unlikely, or even implausible. Because Flat Black is not futurism.
The account of John H. Watson, MD
As it happens in Flat Black, Star Trek transporter “technology” simply doesn’t exist, there’s not even a physical principle that it might be based on.
3D printing by atomic epitaxy as in Stephenson’s matter compilers is useful for some limited applications, but only really when you care about shaping things with a precision comparable to the distances between atoms in typical solids. It is monstrously too slow (expensive) to consider using it to make things bigger than about 10^-10 moles, and it turns out to be not useful in assembling molecules atom by atom because of problems with thermochemistry and the stability of intermediate or incomplete molecules. Putting things together atom by atom isn’t practical, with very limited exceptions.
As for using anything like 3D printing, there is an entire hierarchy of problems.
Sophisticated (“high tech”) devices require hundreds or thousands of different materials in their construction, for dozens of differently-doped varieties of silicon and germanium in semiconductor-based electronics, and dozens of differently-doped varieties of glass, silica, corundum etc. in the photonics, different metals and insulators in the the wiring, different structural polymers in the chassis and case — or titanium, steel, any of a bunch of different ceramics. Materials with different light-emitting and photoelectric properties, with different electrical properties, with different magnetic properties, with different mechanical properties. You aren’t going to be able to extrude all of those different things out of the same extrusion heads or whatever: you’re going to need hundreds of thousands of different, or hundreds of expensively adaptable, print capabilities in the same space. A make-anything 3D printer will have to consist of hundreds of different printers for different materials, all printing into the same space. But while you will need all those things to be able to print anything, you will only need a very small subset to print any particular thing. So if you want to print a samurai sword and a kevlar bustier that is going to tie up all the capabilities of the 3D printer, while producing a product that could have bee made by a far simpler and cheaper machine that is only capable of printing four materials (austenite, pearlite, kelvar, and nylon). A make-anything machine is going to have to have the special thinggumy to doping corundum with rubidium in it, even if most users will never make anything involving a ruby laser in their fabbers’ entire service life. So even if 3D printing were a practical and economic way to make things of all sorts of materials (which it isn’t), a single make-anything printer capable of working in any material would be vastly more costly than a range of separate fabbers combined with a number of assembly steps. And in Flat Black it worked out that way.
In fact, a lot of materials you can’t make right by amassing extruded drops and threads anyway, In some materials successive deposits don’t adhere properly, because of drying, cooling, or polymerisation. In some don’t flow enough to fill in defects, and for some purposes you can’t afford the defects. For some uses (polaroid, mylar, high-strength fibres) you need the molecules to be lined up (as by drawing or stretching). Some materials have to be annealed, others quenched, others surface treated after forming (chemically strengthened glass), some treated with intense light, some kept in absolute darkness, some formed as droplets in free fall. Some things require of may require really decent-sized components to be made all out of a single crystal, and you can’t squeeze out a crystal through multiple passes of an extruding head. You can’t make everything — in particular you can’t make high-performance high-tech gee-whizz stuff — entirely out of thermoplastic resin and sintered metal.
In most high-tech products there is an intimate intermingling of high-spec components that require specialist materials and ten-nanometre tolerances, all the way to plastic cases in which a millimetre here or there is neither here nor there. To build the whole thing to 10 nm tolerances involves 10^15 times and many injection operations as it necessary, and has to work out thousands of times slower even with billions of times as many print heads billionths of times the size.
Speaking of 10-nanometre print heads, friction, surface tension, and conduction of heat are complete cows at tiny scales.
The best way to look at it is that there is a make-anything machine in Flat Black. It’s 300 light-years across, cost something like ¤100 000 000 000 000 000 to build, has half a billion people as moving parts, and is called “the interstellar economy”. Even that degree of miniaturisation and portability it achieved only by specialising ruthless to make only the things that people actually do want at the price, not everything that they might want.
Brett Evill's afterword
I am well aware that one of my failings in this sort of discussion is that I laid out a Watsonian rationalisation for a Doylist setting-design decision, and then when other participants discuss the details of the Watsonising (whether its propositions are true, universal, have alternatives) I tend to misconstrue those discussion as challenges to my statements about what is true in my setting, as challenges to its Watsonian plausibility, and as attempts to force me to change the decisions I made under Dr Doyle’s charming hat³. I tend to react to those as attempts to force me to spoil my setting.
Do not be afraid! This time I am fore-warned. I welcome a general discussion of replicators and matter integrators, and will strive to refrain from treating is as a discussion of such things in Flat Black, where there aren’t any. Whenever I am about to relapse, use some word that teems with hidden meaning like “Basingstoke”. It might recall me to my saner self.
¹ JBS Haldane was probably the first person to discuss these, because that’s what JBS Haldane was like. The earliest discussion that I am aware of is by Arthur C. Clarke, in an essay titled “Aladdin’s Lamp” that was published about 1960 (and collected in Profiles of the Future in 1962). Clarke called them “replicators”, and described variations that either required a wide variety of feedstocks or that make what they need by transmuting elements on the fly. They are perhaps better known as “replicators” in Star Trek (which make no pretence of working on any physical principle) or as “matter compilers” in Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age, which do make such a pretence. I reckon that a lot of us here will know them best as ”nanofacs”, having encountered them in GURPS Ultra-Tech. TL;DR version of this post: there are no such make-anything machines in Flat Black.
² Epoxy bushes and kelvarbast grow just as well on the cheap land on low-dev worlds as they do on the expensive land in high-dev worlds.
³ Which is a viking helmet adorned with the fangs and claws of a Thylacoleo.