Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The challenge of 3D printing to the role of the organisation

RepRap from Adrian Bowyer on Vimeo.
Love this article by Simon Bradshaw, Adrian Bowyer° and Patrick Haufe on the trends among, and impact of, 3D printers. I recommend you go read the lot.
In summary the story goes that 3D printing (ie the ability to copy and fabricate products in the home very simply and cheaply) is likely to have the same impact and reach as the home pc before too long.
So for those of you who thought the disruption delivered by the power of the network was limited to movie making, music production and paid-for content, it's time to take a deep breath and imagine this near future:

"All this may be heading towards a world in which people do not buy consumer goods any more but instead download them from the web and print them themselves. They will be able to customise them at will and may avoid some of the environmental and monetary cost currently entrained by the (often global) physical transport of manufactured goods; indeed, work is in train to make RepRap [a community-owned and very low cost 3D printer] run on home-recycled plastic which would further reduce such costs. In particular, the ability of a 3D printer to, in principle, print a copy of itself, and for both machines to print further copies and so on, suggests that the cost of 3D printing may rapidly fall to the point where it becomes a widely-available technology.
Oh, but what of economies of scale? That's the howl heard railing against anyone touting the accurate serving of microniches (in which users get to shape products to their actual specific fitness landscape, compared against the potentially wasteful ill-fit of the lowest-common-denominators of mass production).
The future is a more widely distributed, less centrally organised place...
"...having many people making few items in the home, instead of few people making many items in factories, is against the idea of economies of scale. But economies of scale are not universal: in the past people took clothes to central laundries to have them washed; now people use their own washing machines. Today electricity is generated in 2 GW power stations tomorrow it may be generated by individual photovoltaics on everyone’s roofs. And industrial printing presses offer far greater economies of scale than the home inkjet printers mentioned in the first paragraph that are – for many types of printing – replacing them."
My caveat is this: our preference, as very social beings, is to always work with others. We are not silos and we will not produce, customise or replicate in silos. The web is not primarily for taking from (ie searching for a product to download and print out). It is for connecting us.
Less for taking from, more for making with (others).

Through it we connect with people aiming to solve the same problem as us in real-time. That's where it delivers real value. Through those relationships our preferences are also shaped.
When we find each other we need effective ways of surfacing our best ways forward - and support in reducing the cost of delivering those solutions/fixes/next steps.

Even a world in which we all have a home factory requires a platform approach. The very process of making together delivers better results for those with shared purpose (none of us is as clever as all of us, after all...)

Platform Organisations can help bring us together and help us discover the more successful collective solution. The expertise organisations contribute will be another value-add. And their ability to bring us together to source raw materials at a collective price, another.

3D printing becomes one of the ways in which the outcome is delivered. It's the new delivery truck. But the web itself - and the relationships it enables - retains its role as means of production (via co-creation - making with).

When we talk about means of production, we often think about the machinery to produce. But that does not mean the device.
In a mass production world the connection between the machinery and the process is clearer. Traditionally a newspaper owner needed to own a printing press. They also needed to employ a team or writers, photographers, editors etc to produce the content. Which was the means of production? The printing press or the producers of the content? The two were so tightly connected it didn't matter.

On the web the owner of the means of production of content is the person who creates the content. In reality this was always so. In the past the owner of the means or production of content had no access to the printing press. Now they have (or at least to its equivalent in the form of the web - where of course everyone is a publisher).

The same is true of factories; where the production line is the equivalent of the printing press. In a world in which everyone has access to their own production line ( a home 3D printer) the real means of production is revealed as those coming up with the ideas, process and required designs.

What is clear is that 3D printing throws into sharp relief the need for organisations to think of themselves far less as the makers of, and far more the supporters of the makers of, 'their' products.

Which is exactly how a platform organisation should be thinking...

One final thought inspired by the article (The Intellectual Property Implications of Low-Cost 3D Printing) - the authors conclude: 'Within the UK at least, personal use of 3D printing technology does not infringe the majority of IP rights.'
Which makes me wonder what planet those politicians who forced through the Digital Economy Act are living on...
Enhanced by Zemanta

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?