On 3D printing, and a world unready

With the recent release of the Makerbot Replicator 2, 3D printing tipped into the real world. It moved from a conceptual idea that geeks and tinkerers would try and explain to their doubtful loved ones into something you can have delivered to your door in a matter of working days.

It changes everything, and I think the world will be caught off guard.

Even now, the ~$2,000 price tag isn’t crazy. It’s more than I would pay, but plenty can afford it. And this time next year the price will halve, the resolution will double and it will print slightly bigger things. Same again the following year. In four or five years’ time, almost anyone who wants one will be able to justify the cost of a 3D printer to themselves.

I always imagined playing with Lego with my son when he’s older, but it might be we’re printing our own Lego-esque blocks too.

I can only begin to imagine what this will do to a business like Lego. Sure, it costs you more to print a block than it costs Lego to print a block, but when you pay £10 for a box of 25 Lego pieces you’re not paying for material; you’re paying for branding, marketing, packaging, tax, distribution and their profit. Printing your own blocks will definitely be cheaper for the end consumer and anyone could learn to model a number of Lego blocks in a 3D modelling tool like Sketchup in less than 4 hours.

I had a quick think about the kinds of businesses who sell cheap-to-make, but expensive-to-sell plastic products whose profit margin is primarily the relationship between their business running costs and the perceived value of the end product. I’m not saying there is no merit to the price we pay for these products today, but we’re definitely not paying manufacturing cost plus ~20%.

3D printing changes everything for businesses like these:

  • Lego
  • Tupperware
  • Airfix
  • People who sell spare parts for things like old washing machines
  • Games Workshop
  • People like Shapeways who sell 3D printing as a service (they’ll soon start to look like photocopying shops do today)
  • And there will be many more

Broke your ladle while cooking? Don’t worry, you can print a new one before you need to serve dinner.

It will almost always be cheaper to ship a solid reel of plastic in it’s compact form than the same amount of plastic in its final product form full of holes and empty spaces.

 

Gorilla Pod and Similar MakerBot tripod

In a few years time, will you buy a Gorilla Pod and wait the tedious ~18hrs for Amazon Prime next day delivery (how slow and old fashioned!) or will you print one out right then and there?

While business is a start, a lens through which we think about the future, 3D printing has implications everywhere in this world.

There’s already been plenty of coverage about the ability to print your own weapons. While you can take the plans off of public websites, the digital files are so easy to share that you can’t take them out of circulation. Weapons may well become less regulated (and regulate-able) then they are today.

In politics, what good are trade sanctions when you can move goods digitally across borders for production locally? Hyper-locally even. This is now impossible to stop. We have to re-think international trade.

In development, what does this mean for people who live in rural Kenya. Do aid organizations deliver end products they think will be useful, or spools of printing plastic to people in need?

Maybe we’ll print our own artificial limbs?

So what skills do we need to be developing? 

I don’t think we all need to be taking a course in CAD, because it’s so easy to share 3D files. They’re smaller than MP3s and much smaller than videos and we don’t seem to have any trouble moving these around the world. A few thousand skilled contributors will produce the bulk of the designs used by the billions of people around the planet. Look at all things you can already download and print today.

What’s the future for the businesses affected?


If I ran Lego, I’d be thinking about how to phase out manufacturing while retaining brand and thought leadership. Not immediately, but probably within five years, ten at most. I’d focus on selling amazing plans for kits and give up on trying to own the right to the blocks themselves. The overall size of the business would shrink, but it might be possible to maintain the profits. Selling plans digitally would hugely cut costs and by embracing this new world, Lego can be a relevant and meaningful part of it. Most likely though, they’ll unleash a team of lawyers on any website that offers 3D models of anything that looks like Lego. People will print their own blocks anyway, sales will decline and there will be plenty of negative press coverage about the company who tries to sue the 10 year old girl who made her own Lego-like designs for her friends birthday. I don’t say this because I think that’s a Lego like trait, but because it’s the way all large corporations today tend to behave when they come under threat.

In many ways, the future will be more different than we can possibly imagine.

Done by When (beta) is live

So, I just about scraped in inside my (second) deadline.

Done by When is live. Though very much in beta.

  • Never go live on a Friday: Fail
  • Ship early: Succeed
  • Ship often: To be seen
In building this to-do list app I’ve learnt a few new things:

All of which I can highly recommend.

There’s loads more to do. It’s still un-branded for a start and the responsive stylesheets need tidying up, but the basic service offered if fully functional and I think it brings something new to the to-do list marketplace.

Please let me know what you think.

Announcing ‘Done by When’

I promised to ship a new piece of software today but I haven’t quite made it.

Ironically it’s a tool for managing expectations, and visualizing likely delivery times for a given piece of work. It would have been useful!

I hate making excuses, but it’s been a crazy month with lots of good interruptions (lovely clients with interesting projects) and bad interruptions (family emergencies and so on).

So while it’s not ready for you to use today, I’ll have to settle with announcing the project title today, ‘Done by When‘.

A version of the tool, whether it’s ‘finished’ or not will ship by this time next week.

Thought I didn’t make the deadline this time, it’s been very helpful for focussing the mind.

Loading a new version of jQuery without breaking an old version

Sometimes you’re working on a website that already uses an old version of jQuery and upgrading is not an option at that moment in time; if for example the jQuery library is bundled with a version of Drupal and works with a set of existing plugins.

The following code will allow you to load in a newer version of jQuery and still leave the $ variable assigned to the old version…

The code:

<script type='text/javascript' src='https://www.google.com/jsapi'></script>
<script type='text/javascript'> 
//<![CDATA[
google.load('jquery', '1.7.1'); 
//]]> 
</script>
<script type="text/javascript"> 
// save the new version of jquery to a variable and revert $ to the existing version on the page
var jQuery_1_7_1 = $.noConflict(false); 
</script>

The same code with console logging for testing:

<script type='text/javascript' src='https://www.google.com/jsapi'></script>
<script type='text/javascript'>
// outputs jquery version to Firebug/chrome console to test
console.log("$=" + $().jquery);
//<![CDATA[
google.load('jquery', '1.7.1');
//]]>
</script>
<script type="text/javascript">
console.log("$=" + $().jquery);
// save the new version of jquery to a variable and revert $ to the existing version on the page
var jQuery_1_7_1 = $.noConflict(false);
console.log("$=" + $().jquery);
console.log("jQuery_1_7_1=" + jQuery_1_7_1().jquery);
</script>

After that, you can use jQuery_1_7_1 in place of $ in your newer code.

Hat-tip to the following helpful articles:

On ‘We, the Web Kids’

Intel inside

I thoroughly enjoyed reading We, the Web Kids, and could probably have picked a quote from any paragraph to highlight it’s quality. But I’ve picked one in particular as it connects with one of the themes I’ve been writing around here for the last couple of weeks. That is: paying the artist. Like Piotr, I’m happy to pay for the art I love. And whether it’s a painting, sculpture, performance or book, I’d like to pay the artist as directly as possible. In this extract, he captures some of the motivations excellently:

“Why should we pay for the distribution of information that can be easily and perfectly copied without any loss of the original quality? If we are only getting the information alone, we want the price to be proportional to it. We are willing to pay more, but then we expect to receive some added value: an interesting packaging, a gadget, a higher quality, the option of watching here and now, without waiting for the file to download. We are capable of showing appreciation and we do want to reward the artist (since money stopped being paper notes and became a string of numbers on the screen, paying has become a somewhat symbolic act of exchange that is supposed to benefit both parties), but the sales goals of corporations are of no interest to us whatsoever. It is not our fault that their business has ceased to make sense in its traditional form, and that instead of accepting the challenge and trying to reach us with something more than we can get for free they have decided to defend their obsolete ways.”

Piotr Czerski (translated by Marta Szreder)

However, while the whole text resonates with me, if it were read as a manifesto, there’s one section I’d caveat before offering my support:

“To us, the Web is a sort of shared external memory. We do not have to remember unnecessary details: dates, sums, formulas, clauses, street names, detailed definitions. It is enough for us to have an abstract, the essence that is needed to process the information and relate it to others.”

That’s true; but it’s a blessing and a curse, and the subtle implications are important. The web offers us instant everything, and as with all new technologies, like clocks and cars and computers, it changes the way we use our brains. And the way we use our brains shapes the people we become. The example from Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows that always sticks with me (probably because it supports what I want to believe anyway!) is that the part of our brain used to imagine, follow and remember a complex idea in detail, say when reading a novel or studying a topic in great detail, is the same part of our brain used to feel compassion.

And it is up to us how we exercise our brain.

Hat tip to Ade for flagging up We, the Web Kids.