Closer To The Edge

I once had a teacher who would say to me “Everything matters Nash, but nothing matters that much!”. Back in the day, in the 1960’s that may well have been the case but network effects were less palpable then, less obvious. Today, in our networked society everything matters an awful lot because you never know what will ripple through the nexus of connections and make an impact. The law of unexpected consequences has never been more apparent.

If you had pulled together all of the world’s top ophthalmic surgeons in 1950 and asked them to describe the perfect surgical tool not one of them would have described the laser; and yet in 1960 when Theodore Maiman launched the ruby laser into the world he had created not just such a tool but also the basis of our modern day communications – in fact the fabric of the network itself. We feel the impact of the laser today because it is pervasive: you can buy a laser at your local DIY store. The laser has made it way to the edge and so we find it not just in the surgeon’s hand but also as part of our every day existence.

3D printing matters and it matters a great deal: right now, for the majority of people 3D printing is cute. It produces weirdly coloured often strangely finished everyday things in plastic and we all go “Ahhh, isn’t that amazing”. It is confined to a small group of enthusiasts and it sits on the periphery of becoming main stream. I read just this week that Hewlet Packard is planning to get into the retail 3D printer market. Already there are some serious 3D prototyping machines; 3D printers have made it into medicine and they are being used to print high precision parts for NASA. Earlier this week, Wired reported that a German company has figured out how to print cars. 3D printing is making its way to the edge sure enough but the impact will not be in the way we conveniently repair broken plastic components or entertain ourselves with tasteless coloured op art. The real impact of 3D printing will be on logistics.

Whatever we buy these days has to be made, stored, distributed, displayed, advertised and either collected or delivered. Take two examples: a set of mugs and a car. The lifecycle of a mug is interesting; often designed in one country, manufactured in another, packed and wrapped in a third (using packaging from a fourth) and then delivered, advertised and sold in a fifth. This is a huge logistics industry made possible because of our networks.

I couldn’t design a decent mug if my life depended upon it and I want something more than an off white vessel with a handle from which to drink my morning coffee. Whether I buy my mugs from a shop or an online website or even from a catalogue what if the final step in the purchase was to go home and see them print out? That means that everything from the design process onwards in the current system would become redundant: no overseas trade, no containers full of mugs and packaging, no labels in different languages no packing machines and so on. In energy terms it’s marvellous but what about all of that employment both here and in the emerging economies? Possible now? I would say so.

When I had my last car I ordered it 12 weeks before I could collect it. That was fine and it worked for me. On the day I ordered it I sat there while the salesman placed the order on the system in Germany where the car was built, with my name on it to my specifications and shipped to England where 12 weeks later I collected it from the showroom. What if nothing was shipped except the raw materials and the power unit? What if, as the order was placed, the production line of 3D printers swung into action in the workshop at the back of the showroom with just a few people to monitor the process and to do the pieces of assembly that the robots couldn’t manage? Possible now? I think not but within twenty years, almost certainly.

As 3D printing moves from the world of the enthusiast to the economic edge we need to plan for the change it will bring in how we are employed and educated but also in how our tastes change and the way we value things. I suspect that everyday items will be things we value for their convenience – value in use but there will be an increased value in things that are crafted, by us and by individuals – value in personalisation perhaps.

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