A few years ago, then editor of Wired magazine, Chris Anderson built a small plane out of Lego parts with his kids. After realizing that even children’s toys now come packed with advanced sensors and controls, Chris decided to start a company called 3D Robotics and manufacture his own aerial vehicles. He now sells both flying robots and the designs for you to make them yourself using 3d printers. And he’s written a book on what he sees happening in this space in the next few years. “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution” was actually published last year already, and some of the predictions in it about consumer 3d printing are already coming true. Staples in the USA has become the first retailer to stock 3d printers, for example, and make them easily accessible to consumers.
Although 3d printing, in the form of “rapid prototyping” is actually decades old, it is really only in the past four years that it has become a consumer reality. The cost of the technology has dropped to the point where an entry-level 3d printer can be had for little more than $ 1,200 (I have just purchased a two headed Rapman 3.2 for less than ZAR 20,000 in South Africa. The CubeX home use machines start at a similar price). Right now, home 3d printing is not much more than a novelty – much like home computers were in the early 1980s, with Ataris and Commodores largely being used for gaming. It’s still probably cheaper to buy a mass produced product than to take the time and effort to set up your own printer to produce it for you. But this will change as designs become more and more available online, and the technology continues to advance (I am sure I will look back on my Rapman printer in the same disbelieving nostalgic way I did recently when I saw my first computer, the Atari 800SX, proudly displayed in the ‘History of Computers’ display at London’s Science Museum. But still, like that little computer, I am the first of my friends to have one).
At the moment then the technology appears to be having the greatest impact just above the consumer level: it’s creating a new breed of manufacturing startup. Just as the Internet allowed thousands of startups to provide innovative products and services at a greatly reduced cost, 3d printing is creating a new breed of manufacturing startup. And new users are joining up every day – see a report here on the size and market of 3d printers.
Early impressions are that the most promising immediate applications of 3d printing lie at opposite ends of the complexity spectrum. At one end, 3d printers allow consumers to create everyday items such as buttons, garden utensils, keyrings and cellphone covers. On the other, immensely complex and personalised objects are being printed out. The best examples come from the medical field, where 3d printing is being used to generate objects like custom tooth implants, print stem cells and body parts (a jawbone was printed out and implanted in Brussels last year), and it appears that skin can now also be printed, opening a wave of possibilities for soft tissue – and maybe even organ – printing. In May 2013, doctors at a Michigan hospital scanned a baby boy’s windpipe and used a 3d printer to build an emergency airway tube from biodegradable polyester, which they then implanted and saved the boy’s life.
3d printing is best used when you need a very small (as in ‘single’) “print run” of an object. Complexity is no issue. In fact, 3d printing makes the most sense when the object you need to create is very complex. And when you only need one copy of it. Never before have we had a technology where we can so easily translate our ideas into physical objects with almost no regard to the machinery or skills available (although cost, energy consumption and time are still all limiting factors). Even when it improves, through, 3d printing won’t replace all forms of manufacturing. Just as the microwave didn’t replace all other forms of cooking as initially predicted, 3d printing will not replace other manufacturing technologies – it will complement them.
In his book, Chris Anderson predicts that the 3d printer will revolutionise manufacturing in much the same way that other industries have been impacted by the digital world of the Internet: it will shift the power from large, monolithic companies to smaller players, and will encourage and reward sharing and peer-to-peer collaboration.
Strategy+Business, by Booz & Co, recently reviewed Chris’ book. It’s well worth a read – do so here, or a detailed extract below.
A review of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, by Chris Anderson
by Tom Igoe
If you’re looking for the future of manufacturing, Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired, would have you check the garage. In his latest book, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, Anderson describes how inexpensive and increasingly sophisticated digital fabrication tools, a growing culture of do-it-yourself enthusiasts raised on the Internet, and the spread of open intellectual property practices are ushering in a new industrial revolution.
What will this revolution look like? If Anderson is right, manufacturing is seeing the beginning of a change that is analogous to the change already well under way in the media sector, in which large broadcasters—few-to-many content providers—now share their markets with many-to-many content providers, such as app designers and e-book publishers.
Makers builds on the premise of Anderson’s first book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2006). In The Long Tail, he argued that although the highly networked digital economy might appear to be dominated by a few large players, a wealth of opportunity exists for small players because such an economy does not require distribution scale to reach the ends of the demand curve. These opportunities, Anderson contends in his new book, are supporting the rise of the “maker” movement and changing the face of manufacturing.
The maker movement is native to the Internet, over which weekend tinkerers share plans and post tutorials in online forums. Fueled by websites like Instructables.com and publications like Make magazine, makers are not only making things for themselves and for their friends and colleagues, but also starting businesses that sell components, kits, and finished products.
Several maker businesses have become multimillion-dollar companies in recent years. Anderson cites SparkFun, an electronics component manufacturer with annual revenues around US$30 million; MakerBot, a 3-D printer maker that has attracted $10 million from investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; and 3D Robotics, which was poised to achieve more than $5 million in sales by the end of 2012. He offers no growth predictions for the movement, but clearly he is betting on it: In November 2012, Anderson left his job at Wired to be the full-time CEO of 3D Robotics, which he cofounded.
What’s different about maker companies, says Anderson, is that they regard their customers as participants in the business. For instance, they publish the plans for their products online, because they know that eager customers will offer improvements. Some companies, such as 3D Robotics, reward or hire these customers for their contributions. Anderson’s description of how his company integrates customers’ work is one of the stronger chapters in the book, and a useful read for any executive who wants to make community more than a buzzword.
Distributed knowledge isn’t the only factor contributing to the growth of the maker movement. Inexpensive digital fabrication tools have played a huge role, and now makers are beginning to make their own 3D printers, laser cutters, and robot mills (see “A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Fabrication,” by Tom Igoe and Catarina Mota, s+b, Autumn 2011). Of course, they’re sharing the plans for these new tools online as well.
The impact of these developments on manufacturing could be significant. Launching a successful manufacturing company no longer requires reaching a mass market, as long as you can reach the right customers, wherever they are. Crowdfunding, through presales on such sites as Kickstarter.com and Launcht.com, is making it possible for manufacturing startups to raise their initial capital without selling ownership stakes to venture capitalists. Online marketplaces—for example, Etsy.com and Fab.com—are giving unknown designers a greater ability to reach their target audiences, and supplier aggregators such as MFG.com and Alibaba.com make it possible for a garage shop to work with vendors around the world.
Anderson recognizes that the world of makers isn’t a utopia. Yes, makers create jobs. But, he notes, “It’s actually more correct to say that small businesses destroy a lot of jobs that they create, since most small businesses fail before their third year.” A global network of small suppliers is likewise fragile. Its transport infrastructure is subject to the whims of an increasingly volatile global climate and political upheavals, and small companies don’t have the pull that large ones do to put pressure on their shippers when things go wrong. What makes this situation work for small businesses is not that it’s perfect, but that it’s good enough. If part of their enabling infrastructure fails them, they innovate to get around it. It’s the momentum, not the stability, that Anderson is banking on to create growth.
To avoid disruptions, large manufacturers would do well to keep an eye on the maker movement. “General Motors and General Electric aren’t going away,” says Anderson, “but then again, neither did AT&T and BT when the Web arose.” Telecommunications companies are now platforms for many-to-many communication and innovation. Small Internet service providers are their customers, not their competitors. It’s a good lesson for manufacturers: Those companies that see themselves as platforms for innovation will do best in a many-to-many market.
The question for your company is simple: in what ways might 3d printing disrupt or enhance your business? Not just the technology itself, and the ability individuals will have to print out physical objects, but also the entire mindset of sharing manufacturing blueprints and taking logistics out of the equation. Does this threaten any parts of your business? Does it create new opportunities? It certainly raises some significant investment opportunities. Are you ready for this “next big thing”?