Mike Minter and I are attending a conference this week in Chicago hosted by Envestnet Tamarac, the software provider of our rebalancing, reporting, and contact management programs. Our primary goal in attending the conference is to learn new ways to leverage this technology to provide a better experience for our clients.
In addition to presentations about these technologies, we also have the opportunity to hear from some pretty incredible keynote speakers. Peyton Manning will be speaking tomorrow morning about, predictably, leadership and strategy. Yesterday we were treated to a presentation on 3D technologies by Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief for Wired magazine and founder of 3D Robotics.
Now any client who has ever had a conversation with me about new technology and my personal optimism about the future will know that I am totally intrigued by 3D printing technology, otherwise known as additive manufacturing. In short, a 3D printer lays down materials like plastic, titanium, or ceramic, to name a few, in the same way that an inkjet printer lays down ink. But, rather than a two-dimensional print out, a 3D printer produces an actual three-dimensional object.
What is the significance of 3D printing? According to Anderson, its adoption will lead to “the new industrial revolution.” For effect, Anderson had a 3D printer on stage manufacturing a plastic tea cup during his presentation.
The first industrial revolution replaced human muscle, allowing us to produce massive quantities of food, clothing, shelter, and other basic necessities. Then came the digital revolution, which replaced human brain power, allowing man to process incredible amounts of data and to communicate with other human beings globally (and instantaneously). “Importantly,” says Anderson, “the digital revolution democratized the publishing of information.”
Before the digital revolution, information was disseminated solely by newspapers and magazines. The combination of the personal computer and the desktop printer gave individuals the power (on a smaller scale) to publish content for the first time. The barrier was totally thrown down with the advent of the internet. Now anyone anywhere can publish his or her thoughts, opinions and ideas with ease and at virtually no cost, an endeavor which had previously been reserved for big companies with expensive printing presses, unionized employees and massive facilities.
With a desktop 3D printer and free software, individuals now have the same opportunity: the ability to imagine and create physical objects without barriers. At this very moment, you can download free software to upload your own 3D image (captured by your iPhone) and send it to your own 3D printer or to a 3D printing facility where you can mass produce whatever customized product you want.
Couple 3D printing with websites like alibaba.com, which provides individuals the ability to mass produce their own inventions by connecting them with manufacturers in China, and you have a recipe for truly disruptive innovation. “The world’s factories have now been opened up to individuals,” says Anderson.
Want an example? Anderson tells a story about his five children, and their fascination with putting things together using kits. This gave Anderson the idea of building a kit toy blimp. So he went online, ran some Google searches, and found a company in China who would produce a custom toy motor. Anderson knew nothing about motors, but with the help of an agent in China (and a chat box that translated the conversation in real time), he was able to order a custom motor that met his needs.
According to Anderson, the implication of this “democratization of manufacturing” is that you will see an explosion of innovation and invention. “How many ideas,” Anderson asked, “have been stifled because of the barriers to entry associated with the manufacturing process?” Individuals will begin to invent based on the limitless imagination of the human mind, and they will work with open source manufacturers using 3D printing (or their own 3D printers) to create new products. This will drive further innovation and competition, which results in better products for end consumers.
The cost of an entry level 3D printer is less than $1,000, and is falling. Anderson predicts that the next generation of kids may grow up with a their own 3D printer, much the same way that Gen X and Gen Y has grown up with desktop computers.
I spoke with Anderson one-on-one after his presentation and asked him what the implications on employment might be given this apparent upending of the manufacturing sector. He acknowledged that you will likely see a reduction in middle-class, blue-collar jobs. Much in the same way that the industrial and digital revolutions changed the face of the employment landscape, this 3D printing technology will almost certainly do the same.