Supporting the Next Industrial Evolution

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away… I was in business with my brother.  We did software, on odball platforms such as NeXT and BeOS, until I left for a job in the Pacific Northwest.  In the past couple of years, we have been having discussions about the economy, and where jobs have gone, and what can be done to create new jobs.

One of the thoughts that I’ve had on the matter is that certain types of jobs are rapidly disappearing, like heavy manufacturing.  A lot of these jobs are disappearing because of automation, or shifting labor rates, or shifting raw materials, or simply the needs of societies are changing.  Moving out of coal, more into natural gas, so less coal miners needed.

One of the things that’s been changing most recently is what I’ll call the democratization of manufacturing.  When you can purchase a “computer” for $250 (lastest Samsung ChromeBook), and you can purchase an assembled 3D printer for less than $1,000, you’re suddenly got in your hands the tools to begin micro manufacturing.  You can both create the appropriate design files, and with a reel of plastic, you can print off your own versions of things, locally.

This sort of scenario is being played out time and again in Maker Faires, NYTimes articles, Wall Street Journal and the like.  There is a lively community of makers in the world, and they’re all kind of chanting in the same way “We want to make our own stuff”.

One aspect of the maker community that is true for me is that my design skills are somewhat limited.  I’m not a SketchUp user, nor will I ever master SolidWorks, or anything remotely like that.  But, I know people who are experts in that stuff.  I’m an expert in certain kinds of software development.  Of late, I’ve been focused on things related to cryptography, identity, and network services.

What does this have to do with democratization?  Well, it occurs to me that the way the world is headed is more about mash ups of different skill sets, combined with a proliferation of relatively inexpensive manufacturing tools.  Once anyone on the street can get something designed to their specifications, and get that object manufactured within a reasonable amount of money, and a reasonable amount of time, we will be engaged in a new paradigm for manufacturing.

My brother’s latest venture (without me) is the pursuit of a first step along this path.  His company (Adamation) is a design firm, which is focused on the rapid development of customized products that can be rapidly manufactured.  By ‘rapid manufacture’, I mean 3D printed in most cases, at least to start.  They’ve just launched their new web site, which is a collaboration of artists from the gaming industry, along with visual artists, web designers and the like.

What they have to start is a series of completely original figurines.  There are 20 new figurines in total, which are bunched into 4 groups, with 5 characters in each group.  Each group has a unique story, and all the characters have individual bios.  You can go to the site, click on stuff, see some visuals, rotating animations, and the like, and ultimately make a purchase.

Now, I think this is really cool, not just because it’s my brother doing it, but because this is how I think goods should be.  Right now, each of the figurines comes in 3 different poses, but I know they have plans to allow the user to customize them further, creating a figurine that is as unique as the user desires.  This is customized manufacturing.  The figurines are printed ‘just in time’, so there’s no inventory.

I could gush on about these things, but I’ll just encourage you to go check out the site if you’re interested in such things.

This does bring up another thought in my mind though.  There are a lot of people thinking about how best to bring about this industrial revolution.  There are tons of little companies working on 3D printers.  Lots of people working 3D printable models, and lots of individuals dreaming about how to pull it all together.  The pieces are out there.

When I look at the current landscape, I see things like small electronics companies (SparkFun, SeeedStudio, AdaFruit), and their ability to crank out small scale electronics kit.  Then there’s the oh so popular for the moment Raspberry Pi, which brings some compute to the table.  Then there’s tons of people focused on creating cases for electronics, and these 3D printer people, who can make just about anything to pull stuff together.

Perhaps what’s missing is the spark, a true vision to help guide things.  Perhaps there’s some amount of funding that needs to be flung into some of the dimmer corners to bring out true innovations.  Some of this happens with KickStarter projects, but there’s probably more to be done.

I was happy to help my brother get started in this little venture by providing capital so that he could purchase the means of production.  Not a fortune, but more than I had in my piggy bank.  Perhaps what’s needed here is more people coming together collectively to fund the creation of new design firms, new design software, new micro manufacturers.  Just a thought.

At any rate, I’m happy my brother’s company has reached the stage where they can start talking about it openly in the world.  I’m sure it will be a success, or at the very least, very provocative.

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