Friday, February 8, 2008

Home Fabrication (3d Printing)

So much goes into the creation of your everyday plastic toy. Hundreds of people and tons of resources across the globe go into making the toy you buy on the shelf. This all may be coming to an end, and if so, it may be one of the greatest disruptive technologies yet seen. Will retail go the way of the music industry?

The way it is done today:
The goods of today are designed and marketed by teams of people within product development companies. These companies try to sell their ideas to retail companies in the hope of turning a profit. The buyers for the retail companies decide if they want to purchase the item in such a large amount that it takes giant factories churning through numerous materials and toiling hands of factory workers to create. Once the items are made to order then they are loaded onto trucks and trains by laborers and then sent to a shipping facility where they are then loaded onto ships by other laborers and sent across the ocean on ships manned by merchant marines. Once the ocean voyage is over the goods are processed at docks and then sent to distribution centers where other laborers place them on trucks to be sent to single stores across a given country. At the stores, stockers unload and stock the items hoping that you will drive from your home and make your way to the item and then purchase it through traditional retail processes. This resource intensive scenario may begin to dim for retailers in various areas within the next five years. According to several analysts the at home fabrication era is about to hit and as you can see above, many jobs will be impacted once this technology matures.

The way it will be done tomorrow?
Imagine a 13 year old named Joe sitting at home with his computer and 3d rendering software his parents purchased for under $1000. He plays around a bit with the software and creates a detailed 3d Model of his favorite Second Life avatar and enhances it to provide higher resolution and a few extra accessories. He prints his creation out in physical form on his new 3d printer from the Desktop Factory 3d printer company. His friends like what they see and he prints a few of their characters out for them as well. Suddenly Joe is in business. He is taking orders and with little effort is creating physical representations of on-line avatars and creating additional characters out of his own imagination and shipping them around the world to paying customers.

Soon though his business starts to die off because other people get involved. Everyone it seems has a 3d Printer in their homes and they could care less about having items shipped to them over conventional carriers. Now people want to just download the design created by others on sites like CafePress over the web and print it themselves. It's not just toys they are downloading. They are downloading dishes, decorative objects, basic tools and even complex electronics such as remote controls using newer "Ink Jet" 3d Printers that combine layers of alloys and polymers to create solid state electronic devices.

Suddenly the manufactures of the objects we crave are in direct competition with the everyday citizen who may not have an education, but tons of creativity and various on-line outlets to display it and make money from it. Where are the retail stores left in all of this? They are left with ever shrinking selections on their shelves as they start to lose market share and are no longer needed as the middle man in the sale of various products. The grocery stores may be the only ones left.

The customer in this environment is the winner because they can either create on their own or find highly customized products created by others. Commercialism and consumerism at this point will have been set free and democratized in many areas. This is truly a highly disruptive technology and it is one that should be taken seriously and understood by many corporations.

A lesson should be learned by the failure of the music industry to recognize progress and cultural changes that have significant impact on the core business. Any organization that wishes to survive will learn to exploit this inevitable and beneficial shift in our way of creating and delivering goods. Not every company will survive. The change will be great and will require that people use their brains in ever increasing creative ways. This will further the decline of uneducated low skilled jobs as technology and machines quickly grasp the basic abilities of humans.

What jobs could be changed or eliminated due to this technological shift (small sample)?
  • Professional Designers
  • Professional Engineers
  • Buyers
  • Merchandisers
  • Dock Workers
  • Retail Workers
  • Truckers
  • Merchant Marines
  • Factory Workers
  • etc.....all throughout the supply chain.

Wikipedia Entry
Desktop Factory
Z Corp: Rapid Prototyping
The Fabricators are Coming
Printing Your Shoes

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