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Desktop Manufacturing Hits the Home Market


by Glen Emerson Morris
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Printers that can print 3D objects have been around for years, but the cost of 3D printers, from $20,000 to over a million, has limited their use to some rather specialized applications, like rapid prototyping, or for the production of limited run high cost items for the military and aerospace. However, things are about to change, and in a very big way.

In October of 2006, a couple of American engineers published plans for a 3D printer designed for home use called the fab@home (online at www.fabathome.org/). A person with modest skills could build it over a weekend using readily available parts. Though the price for the 3D printer may seem expensive at $2400, it should be remembered that the first home computer, the Altair, sold as a kit for $400, or about $2000 in today's dollars. The Altair seemed expensive at the time to, but it started the home computer revolution, and the fab@home is likely to do the same thing.

The fab@home 3D printer is not alone either. An even cheaper 3D printer has been developed in England called the RepRap (online at http://reprap.org) that can come close to printing another copy of itself (talk about viral technologies). The RepRap Website features the slogan "Wealth without money" and much of the site reads like something from a Buckminster Fuller book. If it sounds a bit populist, it's not surprising.

Neither fab@home nor RepRap were developed for the purpose of making money for a corporation. They were developed as open source projects, just as Linux was, and for many of the same reasons. Whether they will destroy capitalism as we know it won't be decided for decades, but in the meantime, the concept of 3D printing by consumers has a lot to offer advertising and marketing, and our country for that matter.

Imagine a time, perhaps ten years from now, when most homes have some kind of 3D printer and consider these possibilities:

A consumer breaks a knob on an appliance and needs a replacement. Do they have to wait for the manufacturer to mail it to them? No, they just log on to the manufacturers Website, download a 3D file of the knob and print it for themselves. (In time, many consumer appliances will be designed to allow consumers to make replacement parts for them.)

Also, many products, like cell phones and MP3 players, have spawned a major market for add-on accessories that allow consumers to customize the products with skins and shells of different shapes and colors. Advertisers could take advantage of this by making 3D files of add-ons available on the net for free in exchange for the privilege of having their company logo prominently displayed on the add-ons.

One of the reasons consumer use of home 3D printing, better described as desktop manufacturing, is likely to take off quickly is that there's very little manufacturing being done in America anymore. As a result, there will be very little pressure by manufacturing special interests against it.

It should be remembered that when the first mass production based fabric mills evolved in England during the industrial revolution, one of the first things the mill owners did was to bribe the British government into outlawing the private ownership of looms. Until then, and literally for thousands of years, many people made their own clothing using their own spinning wheels and their own looms. In America today, there are very few manufacturers left to bribe anyone into doing anything.

These days, a replacement knob, like the appliance itself, is likely to come from China, and that's another problem consumer desktop manufacturing just might solve. While cheap Chinese goods have been good for Americans in the short term, in the long term we can't expect to keep sending China lots of American dollars without eventually running out of them, no matter how fast we print them.

We've been buying Chinese goods because China has been investing heavily in huge factories, sometimes miles long, that turn out manufactured goods at prices no American company can match. In the short term, there is little American companies can do about it. In the long term however, 3D printing could allow American businesses, and consumers, to leapfrog ahead of China with a radically new technology. This could happen because China's greatest strength in manufacturing is also its greatest weakness.

China has achieved an advantage in manufacturing by taking advantages of the economics of scale, which John D. Rockefeller pioneered with Standard Oil in the 1800's. The theory is simple; the bigger the factory the cheaper it should be able to produce goods. It worked for a long time, but classic economics of scale fails to consider a very important point. Improvements in manufacturing efficiency can also lead to cheaper goods, and a constant investment in R&D can constantly improve manufacturing efficiency. This year's smaller new factory may produce goods cheaper than last year's bigger factory.

In some industries, like steel production, it has proved better to build several smaller factories, and replace one of them every few years with a more efficient factory, than to build, one huge factory and periodically try to replace it.

In its rush to become the world's greatest industrial power China may have built a huge manufacturing infrastructure that will prove very difficult and costly to upgrade. And as the price of oil continues to rise, Chinese products will become increasingly expensive to ship to the rest of the world. Products made at home will cost nothing to ship. (The only shipping charges involved then will be for the raw materials themselves, and they need not come from China).

With luck, the Chinese will start making and selling 3D printers to American consumers with their usual efficiency and low prices. There's an old adage that says capitalists would sell their executioners the rope used to hang themselves. Well, the Chinese are becoming the world's greatest capitalists, and with luck, 3D printers could be the perfect rope.

There are many things about the possibilities of 3D printing we won't know for years, but one thing is certain now. 3D printing is a technology that's finally hitting the consumer market, and it will likely have an impact on society, politics and business as great or greater than the Internet. So, fasten your seatbelts. This is going to be a really wild ride.


Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.





Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved


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