Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The shape of things to come ...

Every year, for over seven years, I used to write reports and presentations on the future of 3D printing. I was never very successful at pushing this idea forward in the companies I worked with and occasionally I found myself a lone voice on the disruptive nature of this technology.

The very idea that people would in the future manufacture their own products was generally considered unlikely. I happened to disagree but then that's the real issue with breakthrough innovations (as opposed to radical and incremental), it's full of uncertainty and no-one has the answers. By the time that a trend seems likely, then it's well on the path to becoming commonplace. As any bookie will tell you, there has always been a inverse relationship between the future value of something and the certainty we have about it.

Today, the Philips spin-off Shapeways is creating a compelling case for a future of personal manufactured items and the mere fact that a company such as Philips is testing the waters is interesting in itself. Of course Shapeways (see the video below) deals purely with physical design and doesn't yet allow the creation of hybrid objects containing both electronic and physical structure. Since the technology to create such hybrids has existed since 2004, it should be interesting to see how they develop the service.

Whilst 3D printing has yet to become a hot activity like web 2.0, enterprise 2.0 and concepts like cloud computing, such activities are hot precisely because they are becoming more well defined, understood and more common. The decline in the future differential value of such activities to a business goes hand in hand with the growth of industries delivering such products and services as volume operations. Eventually these activities will become commonplace, commodity-like and considered to be little more than a cost of doing business. The use of 3D printing techniques to manufacture personal objects is already on the path to becoming common and though its impact on society will take time, the effect will be profound. It's not hot yet, but it will be soon.

When trying to spot future trends (a fools errand at the best of times), the focus is not on the hot but instead that which is rare, uncertain, has potential and is often dismissed as impossible. The focus is on the unlikely and uncertain.

The future trends that I take a personal interest in concern the fields of biological manufacturing, biological energy production and the creation of new languages which describe both digital and physical form.

Will they become hot? ... who knows ... I think so, but then that's uncertainty for you.