Last week’s Science of Digital Fabrication seminar at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms was an awe-inspiring look into the future of manufacturing technologies. The meeting was organized by The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy [OSTP] to help the administration guide policy for the next industrial revolution. Dr. Neil Gershenfeld, who developed the FabLab concept in the late 90’s, put together a full day of presentations by researchers and industry leaders who are pushing the envelope in new digital fabrication technologies.
Towards the end of the day, after many new, innovative ideas from the best and the brightest working in the field, I was struck by an informal presentation with no Powerpoint slides. Dale Dougherty, Founding Editor and Publisher of MAKE magazine, started out by simply stating: “Digital Fabrication is about how to help people make things.”
Mr. Dougherty’s eloquent statement clearly told me the DigiFab community, and especially those in 3D Printing, were starting a dialogue to push technology beyond the makers and hackers to mainstream audiences. He went on to explain that in the early days of computing, “the enthusiasts built computers just to have one in their hands. They weren’t sure what they were going to do with it.” In order for more users to take advantage of new technologies in real-world applications, “The technology needs to get into the hands of more people, so that it means something to them and impacts their lives in different ways. Makers help us imagine the things that are possible.”
And then Mr. Dougherty asked the $64 million Question: “How do we move this out to the world? How do we create tools where we don’t need to understand the underlying technology?” Bingo! Industries mature when devices become products. While I, and others who work in tech, understand the MEMS accelerometers and gyroscopes in the iPhone, most people just want to be able to turn the iPhone sideways and really don’t care how it happens. They just want it to work, and think it’s a pretty cool feature!
Digital Fabrication tools such as 3D Printers are now at the place that Geoffrey Moore used to call Crossing the Chasm. In his landmark book of the same name, with the subtitle, Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers, Mr. Moore describes how successful high tech companies make that transition from selling technologies to early adopters to creating products for mainstream markets.
Devices and technologies are not products. While my early customers in R&D didn’t mind that my miniaturized excimer laser had a liquid dielectric fluid that they had to periodically replace, as we moved into mainstream markets, industrial customers wanted to mount the laser sideways on production lines. Whoa! You can’t do that with liquid inside, and so we created a solid dielectric. It also eliminated a maintenance step, which is a time-saver in production.
Bill Davidow, former Senior VP of Marketing at Intel – and an electrical engineering PhD from Stanford – would call that a Complete Product. In his book Marketing High Technology, he emphasizes that success comes to high tech companies that create complete products. For mainstream customers, that means that the core technology is not enough. This large group needs and is willing to pay for the features that make it easy to use in their own applications. Perhaps it’s a seamless user interface, or fantastic customer service or a beautiful design that says, “I’m cool.” While written in 1986, Dr. Davidow’s book takes the lessons learned in the computer, microprocessor and semiconductor industries and applies them to all high tech manufacturing.
Mr. Dougherty clearly understands why mainstream markets are important. Of course, for commercial companies real profit and sustainability comes from selling to a large customer base. But it’s more than just financial incentive. There is real social impact when we “open questions up to the community” who can actually use the tools. He recounts the story of the 83 year-old inventor who won a recent 3D Printer filament challenge. “This is an example of how when more people can easily use the technology, questions can be solved in an open way, so the answers can then be replicated by others. Getting technology out to the community in general means that more access will lead to innovations we can’t even imagine.” Now that’s a solid reason for making real digital fabrication tools available to everyone!