The Next Big Thing

Stand by for a dull sentence.

In March 1984 in a boring corridor in a rather dull building on the border between France and Switzerland, an ex-telecoms engineer was working on a problem of how to share information in a large organisation. Few outside of his employers knew what he was doing or much cared. No one, not even him, foresaw the importance of his project.

That man was Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the organisation was CERN and his project was the World Wide Web. The first website he ever created was this: http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html,

For such an historic thing, the website is too dull to imagine. The office in which the web was created is also dull and today it is only marked with a rather understated plaque outside it. I have stood I that corridor and by that plaque and try as I might, it is impossible to conjour up any sense of excitement.

It is as if the people behind one of the biggest revolutions in human are purposefully playing the whole achievement down.

That understated approach stands in marked contrast to an innovation which might change human behaviour as much as the World Wide Web. 3D printing has exploded into the public consciousness. There are over 32,000 news articles about 3D printing, many of which claim it will be one of the biggest things to revolutionise our lives in the future.

So let me lay my cards on the table. I agree with the broad thrust of those 32,000 articles. I think this new technology can revolutionise the way consumers behave and also, perhaps much more significantly, I think it could bring about a new kind of de-centralised industrial revolution which could change the nature of manufacturing for ever.

My concern is the sheer weight of expectation on this new technology might be too much for it. People, even experts are often rather poor at predicting which technologies will work and which won’t.

For example when Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone he couldn’t sell it to Western Union, the largest communications company in the USA, because they didn’t think it had a future. In 1901 when talking about the new technology of the automobile, the President of Michigan Savings Bank said: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad.” People laughed at, George de Mestral, when he proposed a new material he called Velcro and chuckled at Benjamin Franklin when he suggested that lightening was electricity.

So the almost universal applause for the 3D printer worries me rather than give me confidence but nonetheless the mind boggling possibilities it offers – has won me over.

Last year I was talking to a scientist at NASA about taking 3D printers to Mars to construct buildings on the surface of the planet from the planet’s own dust funnelled into 3D printers brought on a NASA Mars mission. Whilst the ambitions in the future are very grand indeed, I have been exploring their potential much nearer to home.

At the moment it’s probably quite hard to imagine a 3D printer lined up alongside a coffee machine and microwave in your kitchen but it’s what the company Natural Machines want you to start thinking about.

They think they’ll be a demand for what they call Foodini. To explain and show me what they mean, they are making special gnocchi and a biscuit for me. The difference is that their chefs are programming a 3D printer to do it. Instead of loading the printer with ink, they load it with liquid ingredients and the printer downloads the recipe in the form of software. They press print and off comes your meal.

The gnocchi tasted nice, certainly much better than I expected and whilst the biscuit didn’t taste great – they printed it out in the shape of my programmes name, Horizons – which made it very special indeed. In the future, it may well be that a 3D printer in the kitchen could “download” an Indian takeaway rather than having one delivered or rustle you up a quick bit of pasta.

3D Printed Biscuit

3D Printed Biscuit

And it’s not just food companies which are experimenting with this next technology. At a warehouse in New York I visited a factory called Shapeways, which could be a model for manufacturing in the next century. Using one of their on-line tools I designed a fruit bowl with a few moves of my mouse and an attempt at being artistic. My design was then uploaded and sent to the machines to be printed out.

It may look like technology is at the heart of what 3D printer offer but it is a lot more than that. In the mass market age, companies have fooled themselves into thinking what we want is choice, but they are wrong. Companies offer us a choice of products because they can’t know which product we really want. They give us a range of products in the hope that one is fairly close to what we actually want. But choice is a poor replacement because a product is rarely exactly what we want, it’s just an approximation of it.

The age of 3D printed goods could change all of that. Who needs a choice of products when you can have the exact one you want?

The irony is that this new age of manufacturer has more similarities with the pre-industrial age of bespoke goods than it does with modern commerce. This is an age in which the masses can benefit from the personalised products and that is why despite all the worrying hype this really might be almost as big an invention as the Web.

Twitter: @AdamShawBiz

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