The Changing Way we Work & Live – part 3

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid...

English: Miniature turbine 3D print from Rapid 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first in this series of posts looked at how technology advances are enabling location independence for people at work, and the second looked at some of the socio-economic impacts of this move. In fact, the changes are potentially even more widespread further into the future, as a recent MindBullets post discussed.

Essentially, what this post suggests is that in the next decade or so, a combination of 3D printing – that technology is already available, albeit in a somewhat rudimentary form still – and cheap robotics will render manufacturing as we know it obsolete.

What’s more, this combination of technologies will make the production lines of old irrelevant as we move to true user choice in every product. We all remember the early days of the mass produced car, when Henry Ford suggested that customers could have the Model T in any colour they liked, so long as it was black. Contrast that with today where the buyer has, literally thousands of combinations of colour, internal and external finish, engine and accessories available to make a vehicle unique, or at least highly individualized. In the future, there will be no limit to the choices available as each product will be built/printed to your exact specification.

The impacts of this are, of course, dramatic – imagine the impact on China if its low-cost manufacturing prowess is no longer needed as it is faster and cheaper to make items at/near the customer. What will the effect be on the economies of countries like China, Mexico and others where a largely unskilled labour force has provided economic growth through mass manufacturing? And what will the consequent ripple effects around the world be as a result?

What, too, will be the impact on the logistics and transportation industries if there is no longer the need for transporting all the freshly-made products around the world? Shipping, air, road and rail transport, and warehousing will all undergo massive changes and many companies that are household names will have to adapt radically or disappear.

The Amazon of the future, for example, instead of having huge warehouses filled with a multiplicity of product and a logistics operation predicting demand and ensuring, so far as is possible, just-in-time delivery from its vast range of suppliers, will have a series of printing/manufacturing modules and will create products to order in a matter of minutes – and the only transport needed is to the consumer. As prices of 3D printers continue to fall, imagine a world where these are in every home, negating even this ‘last mile’ transportation.

There will, of course, still be the need for some level of transportation – the raw materials for the 3D printers and robotic manufacturing operations, but this will be much less onerous than the transportation of today.

There is, of course, still one area that 3D printing and robotic manufacturing has not solved – organic material. This means that food – fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, fish and so on – will still, for the foreseeable future at least, need to be transported from the farms to consumers in some way. Here, too, we’re seeing huge change today as increasing numbers of consumers buy this online, bypassing the need for physical supermarkets and shops, and we’ll look at the effects of all this online shopping in the next part of this series.

There’s no question that the current advances in 3D printing and robotics will dramatically change the way products are made and delivered and the effects of this on companies and countries will be massive. Technology is really causing the pace of change to accelerate more and more quickly – the future just gets more and more interesting.

Note: I first posted this on the Business Connexion blog on 8 April.

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6 responses to “The Changing Way we Work & Live – part 3

  1. The changes are certainly already here, the question is how much and when they will spread.

    I vaguely recall Harold Wilson’s “White Hot Technological Revolution” rhetoric years ago. Mostly came to nothing. But it was from a politician so contaminated thinking before it started!

    Some things I see:

    1) I’ve looked at personal 3D printing since about 2006. Never quite made the move but it’s getting better and easier. If you don’t want to buy or make your own printer there are outfits that will print up your design, inclusing in Stainless Steel or Silver. Recently saw a real application, robo-helicopter owner used it to make parts for his on-chopper camera mount see http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:83905 . For one off’s it’s easy, for mass produced I imagine the factories will have an edge for a long time. If you’re snowed in somewhere in Alaska (or on Mars) that tilts the equation a lot. At the end of the day many people can’t be bothered with this sort of thing.
    2) Education is changing. Still bears too many traces of the ivied corridors but it’s changed permanently. I recently did a course at Coursera. About 50000 people world wide also took the same course. Pent up demand is there. Courses are too aimed at full time study. Content way better then the drek that infests the current Internet. World changer, it’s thriving and growing month by month.
    3) Several years ago Levi’s had a machine made jeans service. Get a body scan, pick your design, pony up your money and our laser / robotic manufacturing will make bespoke for you. Last time I looked couldn’t find it. Will no doubt re-occur, but maybe economics couldn’t compete with East Bengali collapsing building entrepreneurs.
    4) There are forces in society that actively prevent progress. The mass market has really dumbed down a lot on the INTERWEBS. I’ve seen good technologies driven out by incompetent (but glossy) drek. This is the march of the noobs (or is that the undead zombies?), but given time I hope that there will be a big enough base of non-noobs so that progress can resume in some directions that are important to me. After all a lot of this was invented in the early 70’s at PARC, it’s taken a long time to take root! So the old world has a distinct killing impact, a friction on progress. Then there’s the organised dinosaurs from Film and Music industries, for example, SOPA, ACTA, CISPA and all the extra legal shenanigans bear testimony to that. They don’t care if they stop good progress as a side effect!

    The future is here already. Some living today will die and never have noticed. That’s life.

    • Thanks for some great comments, as always, Mike. I agree it’s going to take a long time for 3D printers to be effective for most consumers, but can see aggregators like Amazon doing the job in the relatively near future. I do agree that entrenched interests often impede development (look at the strength of the coal lobby in the US and how it’s impacted power production over the years, for example), but hopefully the Internet will continue to help by making it tougher to control sources and distribution of information, and making it tougher for the entrenched interest lobbyists.

  2. Am sure that will happen Guy. And as Alexander writes Amazon has already started.

    The problem with robots and technology taking over from human beings is what people with a low IQ are going to do in the future?

    What they call the Knowledge Society in Europe isn’t working and never will. In all countries in the world you find everything from geniuses to imbeciles. To believe that all human beings have the capacity to go to university is unfortunately wrong.

    So while I love the innovative approach of robots taking over manual tasks I can’t help wondering what we are going to do with all the unemployed people?:-)

    • I agree that not everyone has the capacity to go to university, Catarina (and some that do have the capacity prefer not to – look at many of today’s business leaders). Having said that, I also believe that ways will continue to be found to employ people with all levels of skill and ability. As the global economy improves, so will employment opportunities (after all, some senior and very capable people have been unemployed for some years, too). Robots are good at repetitive tasks, but there’s still plenty of space for semi-skilled labour in my view.

  3. Amazon already does that, effectively. Its Createspace subsidiary uses POD printers based in the US and UK to print off single books to order, despatched by Amazon or partner/subsidiary sites such as the Book Depository.

    • Interesting Alexander – thanks! Wasn’t aware that Amazon was doing that with books. Really think the whole 3D printing revolution is going to have massive impact on so much, don’t you?

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