Researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK, recently demonstrated printing (transparent AND flexible) graphene-based thin-film transistors with a modified ink jet printer. (“Ink-Jet Printed Graphene Electronics” at arXiv)
So what does this mean? In the future, you can download a chip design from the Internet, modify it as required, and fabricate it in your garage with a kind of an inkjet. You can essentially build an entire system by printing the sheets and then combining them with suitable cables and connectors. Maybe the result won’t beat an Intel Core i7 in speed, but it will be a treasure trove for hobbyists and professionals worldwide – think today’s Arduino-hacking innovators supercharged.
Longer term effects: production and innovation in computing technology manufacturing moving one step below from corporate labs and fabrication plants to homes and hackerspaces. This translates to faster turnaround times: no need to build elaborate marketing campaigns and align release times with Christmas sales, building even 2 prototype chips is feasible, the whole world’s experts are available, and so on. (Having free and open (as in speech and beer) hardware will be a major factor in this development – one could close the hardware off but the development convenience would suffer and speed would slow down as a result.) The application areas will also move beyond just “cool, I just printed a tiny logic circuit” to “cool, I just printed an ARM core” and beyond. Once this speed of innovation is applied to neighbouring areas such as wireless communications technologies, then we will truly see some interesting developments.
Will this destroy massive corporate R&D projects? No, I don’t think so, there won’t be interference until a lot of time passes. It takes expensive and complex equipment to research and develop a memristor, for example. But the speed of remixing existing technology and improving it will increase. Also, the distribution of technology will move beyond the shackles of “the market is just 10k people, forget about it”. As a summary: self-fabbing printed circuits will take care of evolutionary paths, corporate R&D of big revolutions, and meanwhile the long tail will become flatter and longer.