Posted by: rolfsky | January 10, 2007

approachable investment: Home Fabrication

Browsing through Digg as I am wont to do, I came across this article, “Desktop fabricator may kick-start home revolution“. Now, if you’re not familiar with desktop fabrication, think of it as a really fancy printer that can actually create simple objects in 3D. Using the same principles as an inkjet printer, materials are built-up and cured over time to create something that you can handle and use. Though they have been available for a number of years, their high cost and limited use constrained their appeal to a small set of business, industrial, and military uses. As far back as 1966 we see a “FEASIBILITY STUDY MOBILE PLASTIC FABRICATION UNIT” which was written to “determine the feasibility and means of exploiting the potential of one or more mobile plastic fabrication units for (1) a wide variety of field-produced items to enhance operations in remote area conflict and counter-insurgency operations and (2) Army permanent, semi-permanent and temporary construction missions.” In fewer words, they wanted to make things when they got there, on an ad hoc basis. Note this page providing an overview of a prototype mobile military fab, which can “communicate by satellite link to obtain any missing data, [and] capability they have means that even old and outdated equipment can be replaced”.

Reading the “fab at home” overview page will get you started:

These factors are linked in a vicious cycle which slows the development of the technology: Niche applications imply a small demand for machines, while small demand for machines keeps the machines costly and complex, limiting them to niche applications. Alternatively, if one could provide either a large market for SFF machines and products or a simple and cheap SFF machine with which end users could invent products and applications, then this same feedback coupling could instead drive a rapid expansion in SFF technology and applications.

The progression of fabrication units follows three major patterns I’ve identified, the military->commercial->social progression based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs within a society, the market/innovation cycle constantly cycling from professionals to hobbyists to amateurs, and the concept of approachable investment. The military-commercial-social pattern is the expression of Maslow’s needs and provides drive to the entire system. The approachable investment theory allows the market/innovation cycle to progress and make put the grander M-C-S pattern into motion. With micro-fabrication we’ve seen the pattern progress through stages 1 and 2 of the M-C-S cycle, and as barriers fall, the market is being opened up to avid-hobbyists. As projects like fab@home continue, the investment will become increasingly available, spurring a market for intellectual property around patterns and models for fabrication units.

Following the professional->avid-hobbyist pattern, initially these designs will be subtle improvements on reverse-engineered mass-market products. An “inventor” wants a better grip on his hammer, or flanges on on his manifold. Niche and custom markets will expand for quality modifications created by semi-professionals and avid-hobbyists. Increasing availability of fabrication units (pushed by potential profits of fabricator-makers, and profitability of owning a machine “for rent”), will enable extremely small run niche markets focused mainly on “vanity” products: a picture frame with your grandmother’s name on it, a custom clip for your satellite radio on your unique dashboard.

At the same time, professional markets which were capitalizing on the fact that their consumers _couldn’t_ fabricate their own goods, will see premiums drop as they face competition from corner-store businesses creating workable, if crude copies. Eventually, custom modifications which have proved useful will re-integrate into the professional products, as will techniques for easy home assemble and resource minimization. (it’s easy to pass on costs to customers, but when you’re designing for yourself, each drop of resin counts.) Mega-manufacturers will now produce goods much more closely matched to customer desires with lower manufacturing costs, all while closely monitoring the contingent of avid hobbyists that continue to create their own products and modifications.

How does this affect me?

A few things to keep in mind:
– the affected markets will only be those which can be fabricated, businesses will move greater profit into hard-to-fab items
– home fabrication will be limited in scope (and to niche/novelty markets), until objects with complex mechanicals and electrical integration can be created
– the first major adoption of home fabrication will be paid for by a non-related hobby area (like making model airplane engines)
– fab IP will be pirated, copied, sold, reproduced, and given away to the public, profit exists in controlling some aspect of the distribution or archiving (iTunes for CAD files?)
– raw materials for fabricating will be a new market, just as bead-shops supply bead’ers
– the ability to fabricate will not replace good design, many non-professionally designed items will be potentially dangerous
– individuals with design competency not already working in design will be the biggest winners as there will be more opportunities for them to use their abilities
– certain established markets exist where no “home design” will be able to econimically compete; specifically markets where incredible efficiencies have already been pursued (making light bulbs)
– new vanity markets will appear, filled with questionable quality custom items like the “print your kids on a mug” stand at the mall

Enjoy the revolution!


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