The Next Big Thing

April 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Posted in Economics, Technology | 2 Comments

We’ve all seen the huge changes that the Internet and cell phones have wrought upon our society.  Now, while we are all still reeling the “Net Revolution”, how about a peek at The Next Big Thing?

Yep, personal 3D printing.  That’s the wave of the future.

Huh?”

Let me explain.  The price of the unit above is $15,000.  Imagine that, with competition and technical development, the cost comes down in ten years to $1,500.  That’s not impossible — think about the price you spent for just about any technical home appliance ten years ago. 

Now, imagine with me what you personally could do with such a device.  Need a new cabinet knob?  Scan a matching one and print.   Want new shower curtain rings?  Browse an online catalog, pick out a pattern, download it and print.  Did the handle break on your salad shooter?  Contact the company, download a pattern and print a new one.  For that matter, why not print a whole new one?  In fact, why should I ever need to buy SPOP (Small Pieces of Oriental Plastic) at WalMart again?  Now you’re starting to get it….

There are three main drivers in the cost of plastic goods.  The first is the design and engineering effort to identify the shape of the part.  The second cost is the construction of the mold itself — if memory serves, we were looking at upwards of $10,000 per mold for a small plastic housing we wanted to manufacture at a former employer.  The third cost is the distribution and marketing — as a rule of thumb, retail prices are about four times the raw cost of manufacturing for a mass-marketed good.  The actual cost of the plastic is negligible, and the parts are designed for unskilled workers to snap together as quickly as possible for minimal labor cost.

Let’s look at our personal 3D printer again.  For a given piece of plastic, there is no mold cost — the technology eliminates that.  There is no distribution and marketing, per se — you can make all the parts you want at home in your pajamas.  And, I posit that the design cost will rapidly approach zero.  Why? 

For the same reason that keeps the Free Software Foundation going and frustrates the bejeebers out of the RIAA:  information wants to be free.  Once a design for a new spaghetti server or chess set gets posted out on the Internet, people will download it, copy it, and pass it along.  Design a better mousetrap?  The world will no longer beat a path to your door, at least not if they have broadband service.

So, what does this mean to the World As We Know It?

Well, a lot of time and energy is spent moving plastic from developing countries to the USA and elsewhere.  A lot more time and energy is spent in packaging and shipping said plastic around the country.  However, it’s not the plastic itself that has the value — it’s the form of the plastic.  A melted Lego piece is worthless, but look how much a box of them costs.  However, if I can transmit the form independent of the plastic, then I can save a literal boatload of time and energy => money.

The net result?  China and other plastic goods manufacturers get shut out of the game.  The retail market for specialized plastic gadgets dries up.  Major manufacturing firms find themselves becoming design licensing firms on one hand and fighting pirates on the other.  The Internet becomes chock full of designs for all sorts of goodies that you can make (and edit) at home yourself!  And, the cachet of handmade objects increases even further, especially those made of wood and metal.

Of course, there will still be a place for highly mass-produced “disposable” items, like plastic forks or syringes.  And I doubt that anyone will ever have a printer in their home big enough to crank out a lawn chair.  But why pay Target for a cute picture frame when you can custom design and print exactly what you want?  Think about it.

This may change everything.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Do they really make these things? I just can’t imagine how it works…wow.

  2. btw, the Hank reference was *really* obscure!


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