Thursday, May 9. 2013
Posted by Erik de Bruijn in Energy/sustainability, Linux / (K)ubuntu, RepRap, Science, Tech & Internet, Ultimaker
My personal goal is to really impact global wealth in a positive way.
Often people are surprised when I say I studied economics and now develop and sell 3D printing technology. This could not be a more conscious decision. In the following blog posts I will explain why I do what I do.
It is my belief that a great way to contribute to the world, is through technology. Technology is perhaps the single most powerful driver towards a world of abundance.
My approach is twofold, I've been working on understanding the theory from an academic background through research (my masters thesis' PDF) and on the other hand I put whatever I've learned and 'test it' within the context of my work in practice. When I started, this used to be purely volunteer work in an amazing 3D printing community (RepRap.org) and more recently, as an entrepreneur and founder of a leading 3D printing business called Ultimaker. Back in 2008, building a 3D printer was pretty hard. Today, you don't need to know much about 3D printing to benefit from it. I'm glad that in 2008 I was naïve enough to think I could get it working quickly and start printing soon, because now our company leads in making 3D printing accessible without compromising performance. But it wasn't just the shared frustration that motivated me and my co-founders. It was the potential to empower many people to create real physical things.
To understand technology's impact on progress, see also an interview with myself and Peter Diamandis in the documentary in the previous post, where we argue that when a physical object has a digital counterpart, its design can be changed and improved by anyone with a laptop and internet access. The ability to manufacture that object with a few clicks of a button is becoming widely distributed as 3D printers become more accessible. The very act of 3D printing liberates what is 'only' virtual and makes it real. The value is materialized into the real world that we live in. This changes everything. And that's not just my crazy personal opinion.
Diamandis frequently refers to Moore's law in this context. Because technology typically has the ability to increase its capacity at an exponentially rate, this could be the most significant source of increase in global wealth. Peter Diamandis isn't the only one who thinks so. Notably, Peter Thiel, billionaire and philanthropist mentions that the synthesis of the real and virtual world are where the most significant opportunities lie. He mentions that the computerization of transportation like with Google's self-driving cars is probably the biggest improvement in transportation since the development of cars in the first place, over a 100 years ago.
Click here for Thiel's full talk on technology as the most significant driver of progress.
If the biggest improvements to an entire industry are expected when it becomes computerized, the computerization of manufacturing is probably the biggest thing to happen to our real world. Are digital technologies really so important when they start impacting the real world? It's perhaps appropriate to remind you, that you are in fact the product of a digital manufacturing system, your entire body is constructed based on digitally encoded information (T, G, A and C instead of 1 and 0). The DNA code is replicated and distributed globally. Without digital code, there would be literally no life. Today we have the internet to distribute digital representation of physical objects. On the one hand we have 3D design and 3D scanning tools to create the files, on the other hand the 3D manufacturing tools to make things. Even though the tools of today are rudimentary compared to future versions, it is for the first time that they become accessible to the masses. I'm highly excited to contribute to this through my company Ultimaker.
If the ideas for the things around us can can from anywhere, don't expect things to stay the same. Not only will we see more useful things, we'll see entirely different things (e.g. the long tail of things). We will see radical innovations by small groups of passionate tinkerers outpace the one-size-fits all products of big corporations. If innovation is function of the amount of conversations going on, as Diamandis puts it, digital manufacturing is what harnesses the power of the internet and makes it impact real, everyday lives.
I completely understand why Chris Anderson quit his job as editor in chief of Wired magazine. He believes that 3D printing is going to be bigger than the web. I think he could be right, since the majority of our economy still concerns real, physical things. Currently the market of bytes, the virtual economy, is about 20 trillion dollars. By contrast, the market of physical bits (actual things) is 130 trillion dollars, much more significant. But imagine if the strengths of the two were combined...
In the comments, please let me know your thoughts on abundance, exponential growth and progress in global wealth. In the next post I will continue to explain how 3D printing is becoming a significant driver of progress.
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excellent post Eric.
I think your paragraph about expecting radical change in products being developed, and groups of passionate thinkers outpacing traditional mass-production companies is spot on.
Looking forward to your next post!
Hi Bram, thanks for your comment!
I should add that I don't think they'll just outpace them, they'll also augment what mass-manufacturing currently provides. Mass-manufacturing works really well for things that have a mass-market. It won't be replaced any time soon. But for niches, it's different. There are countless underserved niches. You can see this on Kickstarter, the lowering of barrier to launch something innovative (you only need a garage, Kickstarter gives ideas with potential an audience). With a low-barrier to entry, you'll see more niches pop up and more creative problem solving (less risk means people do more extreme things to stay as adventurous as they were).
I personally love that there's so much creativity that finds a way to a niche market, and eventually some of those reach the masses. But this isn't even the most important thing, since there are so many niches, the wealth impact of those is already immense. Compare that to a PC, sure, applications like Word are popular, it's great that this product serves so many people, but more important is the fact that everybody uses different programs for the things that they care about. And those programs are available. Such a huge application space is worth so much that a company like Microsoft can thrive on it for so long (which is amazing, since they don't have the superior platform).