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The web is dead and 3D manufacturing
2nd Quarter 2011, News & events

The web is dead

The cover of the August 2010 issue of Wired magazine proclaimed, ‘The web is dead’. Here is my summary. A decade ago the web browser was the focus. It seemed inevitable that the web would replace operating systems and PC software. The open world wide web was free but it was out of control. Now simpler, more effective closed applications or apps are what everyone is using: iPad, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Netflix and podcasts.

The big shift has been from the wide open web to semi-closed platforms that use the Internet for transport, but not the browser for display. This is driven by the rise of the smartphone for mobile computing. This is what consumers are choosing because the information comes to them; they do not have to find it. It is easier for consumers to use, and easier for suppliers to make money.

Today content seen via a browser accounts for 25% less Internet traffic than a decade ago. The applications that account for most traffic are: e-mail, peer-to-peer file transfers, VPNs, machine-to-machine communications, Skype, online games, iTunes, voice-over-IP phones, iChat, and Netflix movie streaming. Most of these Internet applications are closed and proprietary.

The shift is accelerating. Within three to five years, the number of users accessing the net from mobile devices will surpass access from PCs. Because screens are smaller, mobile traffic tends to be driven by specialty software, mostly apps designed for a single purpose. People will use the Internet but not web browsers.

Much as people like freedom and choice, they also like things that work fast, reliably and seamlessly. And they pay for what they like. Have you looked at your cellphone bill lately?

The 3D manufacturing revolution

The industrial revolution of the late 18th century brought the mass production of goods and created economies of scale which changed society in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time. Now a new manufacturing technology is emerging which does the opposite. Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands. It will have as profound an impact on the world as the factory did.

Most of today’s manufacturing is subtractive – it trims chunks of material to required shapes – cutting, grinding, shaving. Then the parts are assembled into final products. 3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology. A 3D printer works by using a computer to create a series of cross-section slices. Each slice is then printed one on top of the other to create the 3D object.

The additive approach to manufacturing cuts costs by getting rid of production lines. It reduces waste enormously, requiring as little as one tenth of the amount of material. It enables the production of a single item quickly and cheaply. Parts can be created in shapes that cannot be achieved with conventional techniques, resulting in new, much more efficient designs.

Parts and assemblies can be made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process. It is as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands, so it undermines economies of scale.

3D printing is already competitive with plastic injection moulding for runs of up to 1000 items, and this number will rise as the technology matures. Because each item is created individually, each one can be made slightly differently at almost no extra cost. Mass production could give way to mass customisation for all kinds of products.

Today, the 3D process is possible only with plastics, resins and some metals, with a precision of around a tenth of a millimetre. It is currently used by hobbyists and in a few academic and industrial niches. However, since 2003 there has been large growth in the sale of 3D printers. A basic 3D printer, also known as a fabricator or ‘fabber’, now costs less than a laser printer did in 1985. 3D printing is spreading fast. The technology will improve and costs will fall.

The beauty of 3D technology is that it does not need to happen in a factory. Small items can be made by a machine like a desktop printer in any corner.

Nobody could have predicted the impact of the printing press in 1450, the steam engine in 1750, or the transistor in 1950. It is impossible to forecast the long term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to cause a significant disruption. This will be a major inflection point of progress.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. His popular e-mail newsletter, eNews, is widely read (with direct circulation of about 7000 and web-readership of two to three times that number). His areas of interest are technology futures, marketing and business strategies for a fast-changing environment, and industrial automation with a slant towards technology trends.

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