Monday, July 28, 2008

The printing revolution approaches ...

Back in 2001, I wrote a research report on the future of manufacturing and the commoditisation of the manufacturing process.

I highlighted that we were on a path towards mass customisation and that fabrication technologies (such as 3D printing) would eventually lead to a future were value was predominately in raw materials and design. Eventually 3D printers will print 3D printers and the means of manufacturing will become viral.

All of this is slowly happening and it has been delightful to hear about the recent progress made by the RepRap group in creating a self-replicating machine. Our journey towards these "von Neumann" machines started earnestly back in the 1960's and our journey has been relentlessly steady. My research was not one of prediction but merely of continuation of an existing trend.

I talked about this about EuroFoo '04, where I discussed also the need for open hardware. Personally, 2004 was an important year in the field because it was the first time (to my knowledge) that a concept hybrid printer (capable of printing both physical structure and electronics) was shown to be viable in a research setting. The printing of both physical and electronic structure opens up a world of new possibilities and future development languages.

Printed electronics is still a relatively new field and it has achieved some landmark milestones, such as the first printed polymer thin film transistors in 2000 (Sirringhaus et al.) and the desktop inkjet printing of electronics components (notably from HP, Corvallis). These days we have everything from printed batteries to printed flexible solar cells. It's a fledgling field but it has revolutionary potential.

One question which is often raised is why would consumers want mass customisation. The answer to that is probably because that they've been primed to want it. In order to limit the commoditisation of physical products, advertisers have been pushing the concept of "designed for you" to the public for the past twenty years. The bewildering array of choice in many products is designed not only to engage the consumer in the product but also to make comparison between products more difficult. I suspect that consumers have become comfortable with the concepts of customisation.

Of course in a world of printed physical items, then your average "printing" shop can have a stock of millions of items (without actually having them) and consumer choice becomes vast. This is bad news for the traditional world, as our entry into this digital manufacturing age will allow your average Joe to suddenly become a competitor by publishing their designs. A physical capital intensive barrier of entry into product manufacture (the need for factories, tooling etc) will be significantly eroded by fabrication technology. The nashing of teeth of today's victims (the media / broadcast industry) will pale into insignificance compared to the consumer electronics companies tales of woe tomorrow.

Though we are moving steadily along that path, there is still a long way to go.

It is, however, good to hear of some forward thinking and enlightened companies exploring this area. Now Shapeways, Philips spin-off venture into bureau services for fabrication technology, is hardly anything exciting or new, other people have been doing this for sometime and it is simply provision of SLS, SLA and other well known techniques.

What is however exciting is that Philips, a well funded company which has extensive experience in printed electronics technology, is exploring the cross over into fabrication techniques in the physical world. It is also trying to establish itself close to the centre of this looming design revolution.

The world of printed electronics, printed physical forms and hybrid printers certainly seems to be picking up speed.