Thursday, October 04, 2012

Spoiler Alert ... 3D printing

Anyone who knows me, knows I've spent well over a decade keeping tabs on and occasionally being actively involved in 3D printing and printed electronics. My real interest, as it has always been, is the wider economic cycle of change of which 3D printing will be part of the next cycle.

To cut a long story short, 3D printing is about commoditisation of the means of manufacture in the same way that the Internet was about commoditisation of the means of mass communication and Cloud (a term I despise) is about commoditisation of a range of IT activities.

Anyway, I spent rather a dull afternoon in the company of a respected "future"-ologist who clearly has no idea what he is talking about. So, I thought I'd be a miserable old fart and tell everyone what 3D printing is actually going to do.

This is a SPOILER for the future.

1. Commoditisation of the manufacturing process will result in an explosion of new activities (higher order systems) as the means of manufacture become ubiquitous. This will create a time of wonder and new industries (see electricity led to radio, Hollywood, consumer electronics, computing etc) but what those new things are and what new industries form, well we don't know yet because they're uncertain (this is the one bit which you still have to wait and see). However, this won't stop endless pontification on the subject and book writing about the massive transformation underway and "Does Manufacturing Matter?"

2. The manufacturing industry will shift from a state of "peace" where relative competition exists and sustaining change tends to exceed disruptive change to a state of "war". It will become a fight for survival, where many past giants who have created inertia to change due to their past success fail to adapt and subsequently collapse. During this "war" disruptive change will exceed sustaining change and new entrants (not encumbered by past business models) will lead the charge. Among the new entrants will be our future giants.

3. Executives of former giants that are collapsing will start once again blaming culture (i.e. others) for their failure (lack of vision and action).

4. We will see a flood of capital from the past manufacturing industries to these new industries. Some economist somewhere will write a book on Schumpterian economics and 3D printing.

5. As the activity of manufacturing changes (from custom built factories to ubiquitous 3D printers) then practices in manufacturing will change. Practices often co-evolve with activities (e.g. architectural practices have shifted with computing infrastructure moving from product to utility). Someone will come up with a catchy name for this, like "DevOps" with cloud today.

6. The new practices will result in new forms of organisation as per electrical age (Fordism), Internet age (Web 2.0), Cloud (Next gen) and every other age. Some management guru will write a book on these new organisational structures probably calling them the "new Fords" or another equally lame term.

7. At the height of this change someone will write a book about how commoditisation of the manufacturing process (though they won't call it that as we will have created some daft term like "cloud" etc) will lead to mass unemployment etc. This book will probably overlook every other book which has been written about the same phenomenon (Hawkins and the electrical age) and how each time the author failed to anticipate the new activities (higher order systems) and related industries that will form e.g. electrical age led to radio, Hollywood etc etc. The author will of course fail to anticipate because the activities are uncertain (see point 1).

8. In a desperate attempt to save their bacon, past industries will promote the importance of physical DRM to prevent people stealing copyrighted ideas or making dangerous items. Security and the threat of people being able to manufacture things like guns will be used to explain why this change is dangerous for us all and must be stopped. Some lobbyist groups will persuade some Government somewhere that progress is bad.

9. Along with disruption of past giants many secondary industries will discover that their industries will be disrupted due to rapid reduction in barriers to entry. See Newspapers and the "Internet is good for us as it'll reduce our distribution and printing costs ... wait ... bloggers ... oh, no ... stop the Internet" moment. Someone will write a book on how 3D printing is killing our culture / industry / society etc.

10. Because of the reduced barriers to entry and the rise in competitors that were once former consumers (e.g. Amazon vs Infrastructure Providers, Bloggers vs Newspapers), someone will write a book on "Democratizing the means of manufacturing" or something like that. I wish they wouldn't.

11. The trickle of adoption to these new manufacturing techniques and practices will become a flood as the combined forces of efficiency (through commoditisation of the activity), increased agility in building higher order system (componentisation) and future sources of worth (Schumpeter) kick in. This will take everyone by "surprise" especially the analyst who expected the change to occur slowly in a linear like fashion (which it never does).

12. With the new techniques and practices there will be a growth in concepts of Agile Manufacturing followed by endless arguments over Agile vs Six Sigma equivalents. Eventually people will realise that one size doesn't fit all and both approaches have their place.

13. As commoditisation of the manufacturing process spreads and the explosion in higher order systems and new industries accelerates there will be a corresponding explosion in un-modelled data. This is data which we don't know how to model yet but will eventually be modelled as we understand it more. Annoyingly, people will call it unstructured and probably create a term like "Big Data 2.0" ignoring the fact that the current Big Data revolution is about the fifth one we've been through in the last 200 yrs.

14. As hardware becomes more malleable like software, some bright spark will realise that the function of a device consists of digital and physical elements both of which can be described by code and hence a new language will form. In this new language you will describe the function of the thing you want and a compiler works out which bits should be code and which bits should be bits to be printed. They probably won't call it "SpimeScript" but they will come up with an equally daft name.

15. The open meme (e.g. open source, open hardware, open data, open APIs) will happily continue its symbiotic relationship with the Internet and grow rapidly in this space. Former product design companies will get fairly grumpy about this and there will be endless patent arguments. The patent system will become hopelessly outmatched for this world and will become as harmful for manufacturing as it has been in the software industry.

16. Google, Amazon and the like will swoop in with their normal two factor market and platforms plays to grab the developing ecosystems in this space. Many manufacturing, architectural and construction companies will find themselves now competing with the likes of Amazon backed by huge ecosystems of companies selling designs for direct printing (from that new watch to your new home). The results won't be pretty as usual.

17. Some Government official (probably pushed on by lobbyists from past industries) will start to talk about the needs for certification of designers, architects and the like on the grounds of "consumer benefit". Some standards body will jump on this as a potential new revenue stream. It will all go badly wrong.

18 ... oh, it's late. You get the gist. Just go back and replay every other industrial cycle of change.

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