I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but Vice-President Biden just gave me the kick in the rear to finally get it done.
My mom and dad are wonderful parents who have done a many great things for my sister and I along the way. One of the most important was that when we were wee little tykes they got us started early with the nascent computer revolution by buying us a series of cutting edge home computers - Tandy TRS-80, Apple IIc, Apple IIgs, and a series of PCs. I still remember learning BASIC on the TRS-80 and connecting to the Internet’s precursors - CompuServe, Prodigy, AOL, and random BBS’s via fast 56k baud modem.
I don’t believe mom and dad were sure exactly what little kids could get out these new devices, but it was no leap of faith to perceive that computers were the way of the way of the future, and getting a head start on the information age was incredibly educational and quite a gift.
The dream of the 70s and 80s Silicon Valley visionaries like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jack Tramiel (Commodore 64), and others was “A computer on every desk in every home”. They achieved it and more - now it’s a computer on every desk, in every backpack, in every pocket and purse, in every corner of the world, from developed to developing nations (well, almost). And look at how they changed the world.
However, the revolution isn’t over, it’s just getting started, and the next phase is going to be “a factory on every desk in every home”. Or, more specifically “A 3D Printer on every desk in every home.” Parents and schools will be buying their kids home 3D printers to go along with their computers, tablets, and smart phones.
But the nexus of the virtual world of design (software) + the meat space of manufacturing (3D printing) on every desktop in every home will result in a synthesis worth much more than the sum of its parts. Individuals will be able to conceive of an item that solves a particular problem they have (say a wrench or a bicycle), design it themselves if they know how, download a design1,2,3, or scan an object with a handheld laser into a CAD/CAM file, and make it on the spot.
The Internet democratized access to information, and along with it any domain that consisted of pure information - journalism (blogs, data journalism, twitter, etc.), media and entertainment production (user-generated content, youtube, bittorrent, etc), financial markets (Etrade, day trading, etc.), government (very much in its nascence with the Government 2.0 movement, but happening inexorably).
If you think of all of that as virtual wealth - things of value that exist only in bits and bytes, 1s and 0s, electromagnetic signals, pure information - then the Internet’s greatest triumph so far was to democratize virtual wealth creation.
Concordantly, the most world-changing revolutionary aspect of this Third Industrial Revolution will be the democratization of real wealth creation. Whereas virtual wealth exists in virtual form, real wealth consists of material products that are made from raw materials, innovation (science, engineering, hacking, serendipitous coincidence), capital, and time. Real wealth creation happens when the value of the final product is worth more than the total cost of all the inputs.
We call that ‘profit’ or ‘net revenue’, but what it really represents is wealth created out of thin air that didn’t previously exist anywhere in the world. It’s the greatest magic trick the human race ever invented, the ultimate rabbit-from-the hat, lead-into-gold trick, that makes steady economic growth possible and lets us escape the Malthusian trap. It is the core mechanic of capitalism.
And personal computers + personal 3D printers are about to revolutionize it, again.
A few of the consequences of this decentralization of wealth creation that I can think of off the top of my head are:
Reverse outsourcing of cheap things. No longer will run-of-the-mill everyday cheap things be made overseas and imported. Rather, people will make them at home and buy the raw materials (plastic powder, etc). Things like household tools, utensils, etc. will simply be made at home from digital designs shared on the internet, while only the raw materials are made in factories somewhere and shipped cross-country and/or imported from overseas. Global flow of trade will be altered.
Some things simply won’t be made in factories anymore - any kind of inexpensive thing that is not significantly complex. Fine, exquisite, artisan, handmade things, like Stradivarious violins, will continue being handmade and valued for it. Highly complex things like cars and computers will also continue to be assembled in factories, but increasingly made of 3D Printed parts. However, their designs may be partially or fully produced by enthusiast communities collaborating over the Internet, similar to how open source software like Linux and Firefox are made today.
Education - you thought computers alone were educational, wait till your kids get a computer paired with a 3d printer! Their creativity will know no bounds. But more importantly they will be learning via a rapid feedback loop of conception -> design -> production -> design improvement -> production -> design improvement -> … ad infinitum. That’s the basic definition of kaizen - continuous, incremental, iterative improvement, and it is now in the hands of children.
The ultimate in lean manufacturing and mass customization - no more guessin… er, forecasting how much of a product to produce to meet market demand, rather individuals will simply print either a single object or exactly the quantity they require to solve whatever problem or address whatever they need they have at that moment.
The estimation and forecasting will shift to the production of raw materials for 3D Printing instead, but these can afford to be less precise and accurate, simply because unlike a spoon or wrench, the raw materials are much more flexible and have more shelf life. They never go out of style, become obsolete slower (only as new printer technology overtakes and replaces prior versions in the market), and can be used to make anything, solve any problem, address any need, supply any demand.
Retail consumers can hoard, overstock, resell, or even borrow and lend unused raw materials in ways that don’t make sense with manufactured items, knowing the raw materials will get used eventually, if not when. This lean, custom, just-in-time, distributed, mass manufacturing will change business planning and forecasting fundamentally.
T. Rowe Price has a good article covering other uses - most importantly is the development of handheld lasers that let one scan an object (or even another person) and generate a real-time CAD/CAM file that can then be 3D Printed. That makes the CAD/CAM design process faster - say you’re designing a prostethic leg for a an amputee, you just scan their remaining leg and use the computer to mirror-image it, then chisel the prosthetic parts from that template. This makes the iterative design process significantly faster and more effecient, and more immediately accessible to children and others just getting started with the technology.
In this new revolution, what’s foreseeable is exciting, but what’s unforeseeable is even moreso.
So, to all those parents (and schools) out there looking to do great things for your children to give them the best head start in life you possibly can, I strongly suggest familiarizing yourself with the rapidly emerging ecosystem and economy of 3D Printing, and get your kids involved from an early age. Prices are coming down, and home 3D printers can already be had for just a few hundred dollars. It will be for their generation what the computer on every desk in every home was for ours, but because it combines both virtual and real wealth creation, it will be even more empowering, enriching, and impactful.