Market Makers

When stripped-down to its economic and technological core, there are two things needed for a wave of industrial revolution — and ultimately both are part of a single thing. There has to be a fundamental innovation of sufficient generality and power to overhaul the technical apparatus of production (the steam engine, electricity, computers) and a complementary emergence of new consumer markets (factory items, electrical goods, domestic electronics). The reciprocal excitement of these twin factors contributes the basic economic gradient of the time (industrial manufacturing, network infrastructure, Cyberspace).

Additive manufacturing (or ‘3D-printing’) seems to be positioned to define a wave of industrial revolution that is today still in its very early stages. By making manufacturing fully programmable, it promises a comprehensive absorption of industrial capital into information technology, such that all mechanical production becomes an evolved kind of ‘printing’. Simultaneously, it compacts into a distinctively novel item of domestic consumption, still known as a ‘3D-printer’, but surely destined to acquire a more natural name as its model of utilization is honed by consumers and advertisers. Urban Future anticipates that within two decades a ‘fabricator’ (or ‘replicator‘) will be considered a normal household appliance.

Any such forecasts were left inexplicit at the second Hacked Matter workshop, organized by Silvia Lindtner, Anna Greenspan, and David Li, and held in conjunction with the Shanghai Maker Carnival, from October 18-21 at the Knowledge Innovation Community (Yangpu District). This event was dominated by insiders of the emerging ‘maker’ culture, and strongly oriented towards gizmos, collaborative networks, and the open source ethos promoted by its leading practitioners. The contextual carrying wave was not so much analyzed, as tapped, and assumed.

Unmentioned specifically, but silently supporting the sense of momentum, was the recent acquisition of innovative 3D-printer manufacturer Makerbot by Stratasys for US$403 million. Besides stressing-out the Makerist “anti-propertarian” ideology, this deal put a hard (and impressive) number on the industrial potential of the technology, strongly indicating that a break-out into mass consumer markets is anticipated. This short report describes Stratasys as “obviously aggressively entering the consumer space” — which raises the question: How are domestic consumers going to be sold on these machines?

In the absence of any clear ‘killer-app’ (which this surely isn’t), there’s no alternative to falling back upon historical analogy. How have new, general purpose machines found their way into ordinary homes before? The most compelling precedent was set by the personal computer. That, too, was a device of extraordinary capability, thrown up by a wave of industrial revolution, and tumbling rapidly in price. The first PCs were purchased by enthusiasts, with abnormally developed technical skills and interests, which associated them with a distinctive ‘hacker’ culture. (Like the ‘Makers’, these early ‘hackers’ emphasized the importance of collaborative social networks and despised boundaries of intellectual property).

In order to become an item of mass consumption, the PC first had to be re-branded, in a way that defined its utility specifically and obviously. It was only after something like a decade of incremental growth that the break-through was made, based on the explicit, focused promotion of the PC as a word-processing tool. This implosive contraction of its functional potential was essential to its mass appeal. The personal computer was advertized as a word processor (that could also do other things), with a precise market niche as the replacement for the type-writer. It was suddenly clear why people might want — even need — one. Only after it had been normalized as an item of household consumption, did the PC begin to unfold itself within the popular imagination as a multifunctional machine, of unlimited potential use.

Could the ‘fabricator’ follow a comparable path? It seems hard to envisage any evolution of the 3D-printer into an item of mass consumption that does not pass through a similar utilitarian bottleneck, precisely (and reductively) answering the question: “What is this thing for?” The recognition will not come easily to ‘Maker’ enthusiasts that the extreme generality of its potential applications is quite definitely a bug, not a feature, when it comes to resolving this threshold marketing puzzle.

The first person to work out how to compact the endless possibilities of this machine down to the scale of a cramped, utilitarian box, is going to outrage the ‘Maker’ culture as no one yet has.  They are also quite likely to earn themselves US$100,000,000,000. It’s not impossible that there are people, somewhere, who think that’s a trade-off worth making.

[An older Urban Future story about 3D-printing can be found here]

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