The Future of Everything

The Future of Everything

In 2011, at the TED conference in Long Beach, Surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrated an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem: a 3D printer that uses living cells to output a transplantable kidney. Dr Atala and his team take an image of a kidney to create an exact 3D image of the organ, then print the kidney layer by layer based on the patient’s kidney using their own living cells. In seven hours, you have an exact replica, ready to transplant. Given that 90% of the people who are on the transplant list in this country require kidneys, it gives new meaning to supply and demand. Out of all the presenters at TED that year, Dr Atala made the biggest impression on me.

3D printing is a revolution that will transform our society in ways we can’t even imagine. It will give rise to thousands of new businesses, new ways of distribution, new processes of intellectual property management, and create an entrepreneurial and financial tidal wave that will dwarf the Internet in its scale and disruptive power. 

The world will transform from a macro-manufactured supply chain to a micro-manufactured supply chain, or what is known as distributed manufacturing.  And this supply chain will not be thousands of miles long. Rather than one factory producing 10 million toys a month, there could be 10 million factories producing one toy a month, and those factories will not be overseas, but in your kitchen, your garage or wherever you feel like putting your 3D printer.

Today’s desktop machines can print your phone case, your sunglasses, or your favorite coffee cup. Your printer can also make the jewelry line you always wanted to make but couldn’t afford to produce. Not only is it more convenient, it’s cheaper. 

Recently CNN did a study that compared buying 20 items that included orthotic insoles, an iPhone case, garlic press, safety razor, perogi mold, and spoon holder. They found that printing all 20 objects took about 25 hours and cost a grand total of $18 in plastic and electricity. The savings came out to between $294 and $1,926, depending on the quality of the comparable retail products. And that is in 2013. Imagine in 2020 when if we are to take Moore’s Law into effect, it will take one hour and cost $5. jk

There are several companies in the forefront of this technology. Companies like Shapeways, MakerBot and others will create jobs and economic growth at the local level. UPS has already installed 3D printers in some of its locations. I’m sure Kinkos is not far behind. There will be opportunities in remote areas of the world where getting spare parts can be impossible; printing those parts will happen quickly and efficiently. 


So what will become of the traditional supplier/retailer/consumer relationship through all of this?  And how do you prepare for it? 

In 1942, the economist Joseph Schumpter coined the phrase “creative destruction,” how free markets lead to progress. Progress may not be pretty, but it is progress just the same. There probably isn’t a better example of creative destruction than what is happening in the world of distributed manufacturing. 

We all know that superior quality and design always will be valuable and coveted. The touch of a fine, high-quality bag made by Hermes will always be in demand. That will never change. 

But what will change is that for a large segment of the market, where ease of delivery and bottom-line value is absolutely critical, 3D printing could become the first choice for the bulk of the products we use everyday.  If, as the CNN report says, you can pay $18 in materials and save up to $2,000 in costs, its pretty dramatic. Even if your printer costs $1,000, it could pay for itself in six months. And you don’t even need to leave your home.

Companies that make three-dimensional objects (and there are a few of those!) need to start looking at their products in terms of digital delivery. It is no different from how music downloads changed the music business. Songs are really just a bunch of ones and zeros, that when played back, are songs; but in their delivery they are simply code.

“Products” as we know them, are heading in the same direction. Mattel may eventually never produce toys, but simply sell the format to print Ken and Barbie. Consumers would pay a fee to download and print the renderings, much as they do with songs. 

Putting this in perspective, according to some estimates, 10% of all consumer products by the year 2025 will be made by the 3D process. 


Because of this, brands will need to be more compelling than ever. In the hands of thousands more designers who can produce an enormous variety of objects and who can by pass the traditional forms of both production and distribution, there will be thousands of toy companies competing with Mattel. The Internet has created superstars overnight, so you know full well there will be a Justin Bieber or two of the 3D world. 

The Internet has already upended many traditional business models. Retailers who were once giants in their channel are no longer dominant. Tower Records. Blockbuster. Stores that 15 years ago we would have never guessed would disappear. But they have. What have remained untouched so far are physical products; but their transformation is not far behind.


So how far can all this go?  Recently I’ve been talking to some very talented 3D designers in New York who have a lot of insight in the future of the process. Among our many conversations, two things in particular struck me the most. 

One was around the concept of 4D printing, which was coined by Skylar Tibbits, an artist and computational architect. 4D printing is creating programmable matter, which will allow us to print objects that then reshape themselves or self-assemble over time. This means you could program your bracelet to become a fork, and then it could change itself back again to your bracelet once you’re done eating. That’s the magic of 4D. 

The next concept is what I call 5D, because I’m not sure its been named yet. 

This came about from a conversation I had with Kostika Spaho, a 3D designer who said;  “Where it really gets interesting is when we can actually harvest matter. We will not need any raw materials to print food, we will just need printers to organize the atoms into the food we want to eat. We will then be able to print anything at all, and our only raw material will be atoms, which are free and abundant everywhere. We will not need gold to make gold, nor diamonds to make diamonds.”

In this scenario, the variety of what we want to create will be endless and will undermine the hierarchy of what is precious and valuable. Class structure will be solely based on how sophisticated your printer is, because today’s signifiers of class will become meaningless. There will be no shortage of anything, because matter can be arranged into a form that will be unending. 

That’s a long way off, of course. But this whole subject should give us pause and excite us at the same time. We are on the cusp of something new and amazing, and it’s an open source discussion on how it will affect our lives. 

But the best part of all of this is if you lose your mind thinking about it, you can always print another one.