I am an unabashed Star Trek fan and was thrilled to see JJ Abrams breath new life into the franchise. The original series popularized some technologies that seemed, well, futuristic. But amazingly we now have one of them and are on the brink of another. A modern cell phone is incredibly close to a Star Trek Communicator. So it does not (yet) work in outer space -- but other than that you can simply press a little button on a tiny unit and talk to pretty much anyone else in the world.
The revolution that is brewing now will get us much closer to another seemingly impossible Star Trek technology: the Replicator. You won't be able (for some time) to press a button and get a whole meal synthesized on the fly, but we are at the stage where a short time after pressing the button you can have a wide variety of objects appear magically. These range from tiny, fully functional gears to large, colorful pieces of art and cover materials as broad as glass, ceramics, metal and plastic. Yes, glass, ceramics and metal!
3D Printing is only the most amazing of a slew of new technologies that are revolutionizing how stuff is made. There is also the printing of patterns on fabrics, the laser cutting of metals and wood and robotic assembly and packaging. Here are some important implications of these technologies:
1. Lot size 1 production / Mass customization
Nike already has a significant business of customizing sneakers. Companies such as Zazzle and Cafepress are experiencing rapid growth for customized objects. Now this lot size 1 / mass customized production can be extended from the surface of objects to the actual object itself. Sneakers that fit perfectly (hopefully coming soon!). Dream figurines.
2. No / raw material inventories
Closely related is the fact that with these new technologies companies no longer need to keep inventories of finished or even semi-finished goods. Instead, inventories will consist primarily of raw materials. This means that the speed of innovation and change will pick up tremendously. Physical objects can now be developed iteratively just like we have grown used to with web sites.
3. The softwarization of stuff
What makes software development so easy these days is that you don't need to know anything about the hardware on which it will run. With manufacturing, designing and making were historically relatively tightly coupled: in order to design something that could be made you had to know a fair bit about how it would be made. With the new manufacturing technologies not only can more and more of this translation be implemented inside of design tools, but like software it is also becoming easier to share and modify/integrate components. This means that it becomes much easier for development to become iterative (just like software).
4. Open Sourcing of hardware
Directly related to the softwarization of stuff is that we are seeing the open sourcing of hardware. Companies such as Buglabs and projects such as OScar and Open Source Ecology are working to turn traditionally closed systems into open source components that can be freely combined, extended and assembled into new products. In 3D printing there are a variety of component designs that have already been open sourced. For instance, this design for a dremel fuge explicitly acknowledges an open source shape library that was used. The open source approach to making stuff means that individuals can make small contributions (similar to fixing a typo on Wikipedia) more easily and the overall process becomes accretive.
5. Democratization of manufacturing
We have observed in the past that the Internet is a democratizing force and we have based many of our investments on that thesis. So far, however, that trend has applied only to bits. The new manufacturing technologies will gradually extend this force to atoms. As the right infrastructure comes into place, a tiny team or even a single engineer will be able to compete in the physical world the same way that is now possible online.
So how far are we along this path? It is early days. Probably a little too early to declare that atoms "are" the new bits. But progress has been rapid and it feels distinctly as if we are at the cusp of rapid acceleration. For a geek like myself it is impossible to look at the Cupcake CNC from Makerbot and not think of it as the Apple I of personal manufacturing. At the same time as other 3D printers cost $100,000 or more, the Cupcake comes as a kit for $750. That is two orders of magnitude cheaper. Yes, there is some assembly required (Bre jokes that it's at the level of IKEA furniture) but it is easy to extrapolate to an Apple II, which will be the Makerbot in a box. In the meantime, there is a growing list of things that can be printed with a Makerbot that can be found at Thingiverse.
In parallel to Makerbot driving the price of hardware way down, Shapeways has been developing a lively marketplace for 3D printing. Shapeways connects folks who just want to buy a custom part with developers who create models and printing capacity for the actual production. The beauty of such a marketplace is that it lets everyone focus on what they do best. 3D Modelers can optimize their designs without having to worry about operating a printer or shipping for fulfillment (they become the "content" creators for 3D printing). For instance, the dremel fuge cited above is available, as are wonderful mathematical art objects (several of which are decorating my office) and a wide variety of jewelry. 3D Printers in turn can focus on optimizing the process and driving down the cost. For people who just need stuff, Shapeways offers an e-commerce experience as simple as buying on Amazon. As an aside, Shapeways has put up a neat series of videos about 3D printing on Youtube.
With so much happening, this is a fascinating time for anyone designing and making stuff. If you belong to that group, we want to hear from you about what excites you the most!