There is a lot of talk around 3d printing these days, and what it will do for manufacturing. How it can democratize the creation of products and move innovation back into a cottage industry alongside big R&D departments. Once again, individuals will be a key creation of inventions, holding patents and other forms of intellectual property.
While this is interesting, there is a bigger picture to be excited for. What does life look like when this technology is commoditized and ubiquitous. Working in technology, there is a pattern that I think will hold true for 3d printing: the technology and hardware lose value, while content is king.
If you haven’t seen 3d printing, check this out:
Look at music. MP3 players ushered in a revolution. Now they barely exist. Who buys an mp3 player? It’s a feature of your computer, tv, game console, phone, car. Lots of devices can play mp3s. The money is in the marketplace (itunes), and the content (publishers and artists). Publishers are complaining and have been hurting because they didn’t adapt. With manufacturing taken out of the equation, the barrier to entry it lower. Record labels now compete on the ability to promote artists, content and merchandise, as well as general business acumen. Some will adapt and survive.
So what happens when 3d printing is everywhere? The barrier to entry for general merchandise is lower. Barbie™ is now just content. She is a license. I don’t go to a big box store and buy a plastic doll that was shipped across the country. I buy a license to print a doll for my daughter from some “iTunes for everything” store, and it prints. So now, Mattel’s advantage over the makers of a generic blonde doll (with unrealistic proportions) will be their ability to market and innovate a brand and culture behind the doll. Meaning that packaging, distribution channels and manufacturing are no longer a competitive advantage. Sure, they have a head start with branding, but they haven’t exactly been breaking their backs fending off competitors, have they. But what about when this digital license store for everything is selling a Barbie license for $4.99 and a model made by a home hobbyist that comes with a link to some youtube stories about the doll for $.99?
Which is why companies like Mattel would accept this shift in the first place. Knockoffs or pirated plans for their designs will be on the market before real designs are anyway. Just like music, the big product companies will get dragged into this business by the inertia of the technology.
In this version, a couple of interesting questions come up. Who owns that license store? It’s way too early to guess, but if I had to put money down now, I’d say Apple and Amazon are the leading contenders for seeing this far into the future. Being cloud content providers, they will be on top of the ball realizing that I want to carry these licenses with me, especially once the printer is a commodity.
Which brings up some other interesting areas: maintenance, travel and license enforcement.
I should never need to buy my daughter another doll if it breaks, because I can just reprint one. Thinking of disposable things, how is there recurring value. Once I buy the license to a razor, I never need to buy one again.
For that matter, what stops you from printing razors for your neighborhood? What is the DRM model like for a trivial thing? And who believes there wouldn’t be an open-source razor that was good enough.
Certainly I like the fact that I don’t need to store all these things. Assuming we can print almost anything, then I don’t have a closet full of toilet-paper, I just print a roll when I need it. Think of all the things in your house you don’t need to store, from seasonal tools to disposable goods.
The idea I really love is travel. If my phone/tablet/whatever is my wallet (near field payment) and stores my licenses, then I can travel with just the clothes on my back. Each hotel room would have it’s own 3d printer and I have my preferred razor, toothbrush, and entire wardrobe available.
Highway truck travel drastically reduces in a world where I only need the basics “inks” (raw materials like polymers, metals, cotton) for my 3d printer. My town is now full of service providers and social locations, not big box retailers. Personal travel for errands goes away. The virtual workplace is realistic or more than just information workers, center employees and data researchers. Certainly the remote access of this is huge. Imagine a specialized implant needed in a remote medical center. Or repair parts needed on a space station. Imagine the difference to the Apollo 13 crew if they had a 3d printer.
A lot of this view of the world relies on the ability to easily recycle these materials back into those raw materials (inks). Assuming that, then some things may go away. For instance, if the power used to recycle and reprint an item of clothing is less than the power to wash clothes, then clothes washers go away. You would wear an outfit until done, then put it in a recycling bin. And you don’t need a closet, you just have a license to a variety of designs. If clothes are always new, then will the stigma of wearing the same outfit go away. Will people find 2 or 3 favorite outfits and simply rotate those.
This new view of the world of things is very interesting to me. On one hand it has a utilitarian view, where we can have much less stuff around us on a regular basis, and people can more easily live wherever they want. On the other hand, it doesn’t have the cold feel of many utilitarian views of the future, because of the freedom and ease of design, redesign and distribution. If the printer can use almost any material and the recycling can keep efficiency pace, it could really be a stunning new world where we have real ways of dealing with scarcity. Materials are used more efficiently in this manner, and products only need to exist during small windows of time. An for an even bigger change, imagine what happens the minute organic material can be printed in this, namely food and replacement organs.