Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution, How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, has an interesting article up on the Huffington Post, which appears to be exerted from a more detailed piece in the World Financial Review.
He argues that economic revolutions occur when new communications systems merge with new energy systems, which in turn leads to increased expansion and integration in trading and complex commercial activities, all aided by the ongoing advancements in communication. Following this model, he states that Internet technologies and renewable energy advancements are coming together to lay the foundation for what he calls the Third Industrial Revolution (TIR). The theory is that technology advances will enable localized/democratized production of information and energy.
I think his outlook may be a bit on the optimistic side, but there is no doubt that our communications technologies and our green technologies are destined to be melded together. The so-called Internet of Things, a concept which envisions almost everything being electronically traceable and connected (not unlike how Walmart gained its competitive edge via its logistics system of tracking all products in the supply chain), has the potential to lead to amazing new levels of energy efficiency. IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative uses big data analysis to improve utility networks, power grids, and transportation infrastructure.
Rifkin goes on to explore the next step in the TIR, that of localized manufacturing.
While the TIR economy allows millions of people to produce their own virtual information and energy, a new digital manufacturing revolution now opens up the possibility of following suit in the production of durable goods. In the new era, everyone can potentially be their own manufacturer as well as their own internet site and power company. The process is called 3-D printing; and although it sounds like science fiction, it is already coming online, and promises to change the entire way we think of industrial production.
Think about pushing the print button on your computer and sending a digital file to an inkjet printer, except, with 3-D printing, the machine runs off a three-dimensional product. Using computer aided design, software directs the 3-D printer to build successive layers of the product using powder, molten plastic, or metals to create the material scaffolding. The 3-D printer can produce multiple copies just like a photocopy machine. All sorts of goods, from jewelry to mobile phones, auto and aircraft parts, medical implants, and batteries are being “printed out” in what is being termed “additive manufacturing,” distinguishing it from the “subtractive manufacturing,” which involves cutting down and pairing off materials and then attaching them together.
To anyone who doubts that 3D printing is up-and-coming, consider that the industry is expected to reach $3.1 billion globally by 2016 and $5.2 billion by 2020.
Currently the cost of additive manufacturing, although it produces less waste then traditional subtractive manufacturing, makes it limited in its application. Although the technology is moving swiftly forward, we are not to the point were everyone can have a 3D printer on their desk. We might not even go in that direction; the technology might find its home in businesses and office environments, much like fax machines and photocopiers.
I like Rifkin’s model of energy tech + communications = economic advancement and expansion. The economic gains and opportunities for many small businesses are made possible because of the decrease in marketing and logistics costs that e-commerce allows. The growth of companies in the consumer 3D printing sector is already impressive, with sites such as Shapeways and Ponoko allowing designers to sell their products via an e-commerce platform. Although still in the early stages of development, lowering the barrier to entry for creatives to market their goods is an encouraging sign of things to come. A designer in Africa can sell jewrey on Shapeways that is printed to order in Eindhoven, Neatherlands and then sent to the buyer in the U.S. Building platforms that democratize design in this way is the first step.
The next stage of this process is the increasing localization of the manufacturing process, regardless of where the design is taking place. Shapeways, who also works with business partners to print orders, is in the process of opening a NYC production facility, which will reduce the shipping and carbon footprint. NYC-based companies MakerBot and Buildatron both offer home printers based on open source designs, for those who are more adventurous.
To realize Rifkin’s vision of the Third Industrial Revolution even more businesses in this space will need to be nurtured, so that the potential for localized production of material goods is expanded.
Interesting times indeed.