Peak Attention

We've reached peak attention on the internet. As you can see from the graph below, the time spent online is not significantly growing anymore.

Time Spent Per Adult User per Day with DIgital Media - USA - 2008 - 2016.png

The growth of the internet has generated 4 champions (Google, Apple, Facebook & Amazon) who together dominate for the most part how you spent your time online, where you do your shopping and how you get online.

Comscore's Mobile App Report 2017 underlines this, they found that most of all our time we spent only on 10 apps.

Concentraton of App Time Spent by Smartphone App Rank - Comscore Mobile Report 2017.png

And those apps are:

Top 10 Mobile Apps by Penetration of App Audience - Comscore Mobile App Report 2017.png

These companies are now at their peak and they have the momentum to buy, absorb or change their tactics to fend off any competitor. The Facecbook / Snapchat battle is a great example of that. Facebook just absorbs everything which makes Snapchat unique. It might not capture all the audience away from Snapchat, but just enough to defend their position.

Distribution on the internet is becoming harder & expensive

VCs love to say that it became much cheaper to start a company and in many ways this still holds true today. Except it became more expensive and harder to distribute your product - being it a service, software or product - and reach your audience.

It is more expensive because today you need a website and 2 mobile apps instead of just a website.

Harder because by default you don’t have easy access to your audience anymore. The audience does not live on the web anymore. They live in Facebook, app stores, search engines, Amazon and Netflix. The attention of the average internet user is fully engaged and it has become virtually impossible to steal a bit of that attention away without smart, engaging and costly marketing.

You used to be able to start a company by building a site and service and launching it. You could market it to a few key users and find a few journalists to write about it. Today that is not enough, you get quickly buried because we reached peak attention.

I would argue that it is much cheaper to scale your company nowadays - not necessarily to start one.

I don't expect that AI, machine learning, AR or VR will not significantly change the landscape. GAFA is well situated to absorb and embrace those new technologies. They'll lead to new opportunities but companies need to battle the same attention problem like any other company launching a new product or service on the internet.

It's reasonable to assume that only a major new platform or major platform shift can threaten their position and generate a new set of GAFA companies.

Web vs Native Apps

The big promise of web 2.0 was that eventually all applications would run inside a web browser and that native apps would go away. This was in early 2000s. We’ve come a long way since then but native apps have not gone away - even by a long shot. Especially the birth and rise of mobile threw a wrench in this vision, but there are some early signs on the horizon this is going to change.

The IOS and Android mobile platforms have been taking over the world. 51.3% of internet traffic originates from a mobile platform and the developing part of the world depends even more heavily on mobile platforms. But at the same time, mobile platforms have been killing the web. 60% of mobile usage is inside apps nowadays and it’s growing. Apps are different because they are built using lower level programming languages like Objective-C (IOS) and Java (Android). Because of their low-level nature, they're more costly to develop for plus two different versions need to be maintained to support both platforms. Luckily - you could argue because of this - we only ended up with two mobile platforms.

The reason the web took off the way it did was because it could be accessed from any device and OS. A web browser was enough. This allowed for websites to quickly scale because the distribution via web was easy, fast and enormous.

But the web - an open platform governed by open standard bodies - was not ready to run on underpowered mobile platforms. The same applied to mobile networks at the time. When the iPhone came out in 2007, it supported AT&Ts 2G EDGE network with a maximum transfer rate of 200kbps. The first iPhone had a battery-friendly downclocked Samsung ARM CPU which was 100x slower than today's iPhone 7 and IOS Safari’s web performance increased by 200x. Not only the mobile hardware improved significantly over time, but also the mobile networks are significantly faster to the point that in many places of the world there’s no significant speed difference between fixed and wireless connections.

RDS - iPhone CPU performance.png

In the early years of the iPhone, Steve Jobs was bullish on the future of the web evidenced from his controversial Thoughts on Flash open letter to Adobe. Early on IOS browser Safari came with features out of the box to bring web sites into IOS by allowing them to run full-screen and give them a place on the home screen with an icon like any other (native) app. These features still exist today.

But Apple and the rest of the world quickly realized that to get the necessary performance, 3D acceleration, grant access to local features like the camera, GPS and storage, it was necessary to move to native apps. Apple introduced their IOS app store in 2008. Apple’s App Store is an enormous success and at the same time moved the focus away from the web as a viable app platform.

W3C, ECMA and others kept chugging along and kept moving the web standards forward. We are now at the 5th standard for HTML, 7th edition of the JS/ECMAScript standard, 4th level of CSS and version 2 of WebGL. Javascript was famously created in 10 days by Brendan Eich because Marc Andreessen wanted to augment the web by giving their browser some limited dynamic capabilities and it needed to be done before the Netscape 1.1 release. This happened in 1995.
The web has come a long way since then and now has 3D support, local storage, notifications and access to location services.

If we would imagine a world where a mobile computing devices has access to unlimited processing power, unlimited storage and unlimited network speeds, there is certain a great case to be made that the web will come back as the platform for apps. As shown earlier, we are moving towards a world like where the resource constraints - which made native applications become the default choice - are no longer an issue.

It stands to reason that the web will become as prevalent as it has become on the desktop and arguable even bigger than it is today. In 2009 Apache Cordova - formerly known as NItobi and PhoneGap - was born. Cordova was one of the first tries to work towards unifying mobile platforms using the web, but is no longer alone in morphing the web into native app development. In 2013, the Ionic and Electron frameworks came to life. All of these open source projects have the same goal which is to marry web standards (JS, CSS, HTML, WebGL) with native underlying platforms breaking free from the constraints of the generic web browser. They tie web technologies with a native experience on each supported platform while allowing the same application without modification live on both platforms.

The benefits are clear. A single app which can run on any platform with little to no modifications built using a higher level programming language is going to make it cheaper, faster and easier to build and distribute new apps.

The problem of native app development is exacerbated by the large number of display sizes in the market today. Apple’s IOS lineup from iPhone SE through iPad Pro there are 6 different display sizes to support. Android is in a similar situation. The larger tablets move into desktop territory.

Talking about desktop territory, Google's strategy to bring Android to ChromeOS laptop feels like an impatient move to make that computing platform more relevant. In many ways ChromeOS was meant to do the same by graduating web applications to become standalone applications on a computing platform. Much of the strategy to bring Android applications to ChromeOS stems from the positioning of Chromebooks as lower-end alternatives to their Windows and MacOS counterparts. It’s unclear to me if that was a conscious decision by Google or the market - namely OEMs designing and manufacturing Chromebooks - decided to position chromebooks that way. Though Google has been very successful in marketing their Chromebooks in the education market.

Below the surface there's an additional opportunity. When it becomes easier to develop for multiple platforms simultaneously, it also creates opportunities for new platforms to emerge. For instance, Microsoft has been struggling to get a foothold in the mobile market and much of that can be attributed to their slow response to the mobile computing platform. When they were moving, it was already too late. The native app ecosystem proved an enormous hurdle to cross and app developers were not waiting to support another platform. But there's a possible future where that hurdle is going away and that is an enormous opportunity for Microsoft and others.

There's a fair chance that we look back on the era of the native mobile apps as abomination of the norm.

Future Platforms

Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) are now the most valuable and successful companies in the world. This also means that they’re maturing rapidly and this means the platforms they ride on are mature quickly as well. These companies are carrying boatloads of money which give them the power of money to compete against any new (potential) threat quickly. A good example is Google Home and the subsequent push by Google to bring this product to as many consumers as fast possible. It is competing against the highly successful Amazon Echo family of products. 

Another example is the introduction of “snapchat” features into the different properties of Facebook. Instagram and WhatsApp reached 200M DAUs within months - just compare that to Snapchat’s 160M DAUs on IPO which took them years to get to that point.

So strictly speaking any new development on the internet or mobile will either be quickly bought up or copied by these companies. And this will make it much harder to launch and grow a successful competing company on these platforms.

History also tells us that when companies reach this height and as their platforms further mature, new platforms and opportunities will arise. And interesting enough these companies will not be able to compete or turn around their business to take full advantage of this. This might sound inconceivable today, but let’s look at these two examples. 

First, there’s Walmart, the biggest retailer in the world, but in online retail they’re irrelevant. You’d think that a company with the resources and knowledge of retail would be able to compete and keep up with online retail competitors. But they are not. Of course, they won’t go away, but they will not become the number one online retailer anymore. 

The same can be said about Microsoft. They completely missed the boat on the internet and mobile platforms until it was too late. You could even argue they missed the cloud platform as well. Same applies to Intel. Intel missed the boat on mobile as well. Together they were known as Wintel and they were the jewels of the nineties. Now, these companies have become irrelevant from a mindshare and technology direction perspective.

Before Wintel, there was IBM. IBM was the computing company of the 80s, but today they’re irrelevant.

Of course IBM, Microsoft, Intel and Walmart are still alive and generating sizable revenues. Irrelevancy does not mean bankruptcy - in many ways, these companies are too big to fail. But they’re on the infinite road of playing catch up in their respective markets.

This brings me to my point that the hegemony of GAFA will go away as well. You already see some early signs of this in both Google and Apple. Google spends an extraordinary amount of money ($15B in 2016) on R&D but no new platform has emerged from it yet. Same applies to Apple. Their biggest product launches in the last 5 years were just accessories - watch and AirPods - and not platforms. They’ll never be able to grow into revenue streams similar to iPhone or Macbooks.

Taken together, you could come to the conclusion that we’re on the brink of a new major platform to emerge. Investment dollars and ideas are turning away from more traditional investments in internet services and mobile towards other platforms. At this point, it is impossible to say what these new platforms will be. It is pretty certain that they will emerge from all the attention towards blockchains, machine learning/AI and augmented reality/virtual reality. None of these technologies is a platform but you can bet on it that it will be enabled by one or more of them.

Platforms emerge when there is a technology breakthrough which makes it possible to bring technology to form factors or places which were previously impossible. 

Electric autonomous vehicles are way on top of my list. It will be as disruptive as the internet. Cities will change; no need for parking lots, people can live further out in suburbia. Car-ownership will change, there might not even be a need to own a car anymore. This will impact car dealerships and car manufacturers. We might only end up with a few of manufacturers and reach complete commoditization of car manufacturing. There will be no further need of gas stations. Cars are probably maintained by large corporations running major fleets of autonomous vehicles. The car wash will go away. There is no longer need for the DMV and maybe policing of traffic is a thing of the past. Tax revenue streams need to be readjusted.

A little further out but as fundamental as the computer processor or the internet, I would bet on either power consumption or power storage technology. The biggest problem holding back many potential applications, form factors, and new technology is power consumption and power storage. Any new technology which can decrease power consumption or increase power storage densities by 100x is going to change the world fundamentally.

It is not limited to power consumption or power storage. The new technology can also change the paradigm on how devices work. For instance, power could be transmitted wirelessly. Or the technology can offer a way to offload 99% of processing to a different device while offering a full-fledged platform performance.

When that happens it is pretty obvious what is going to happen. History is telling us that again. Typically an emergence of a new technology is unbundling existing platforms and then bundles it again into the new platform. For instance, the internet unbundled many things like the cable subscription, magazine subscriptions, music distribution, phone subscriptions and this is still going on. Currently, a lot of offerings of the banking industry is being unbundled like debit cards, loans, mortgages, and insurance. But at the same time, you see new bundles appear. GAFA is a good example of this. They bundle and protect their own platforms. The openness of the web has been replaced with proprietary - and much less open - platforms like IOS and Android. The mobile phone bundles everything like your wallet, camera and must player. Facebook is pulling everyone into their walled garden much like AOL did at the time with their own version of the web.

And this is my second major observation for the next platform which is openness. All the major platform shifts were twofold. First, the emergence of new technology which allowed new form factors, services or applications not previously possible before. And second, the emergence of an open standard to make us of the new platform. It is essential to level the playing field for a new technology to become successful. For instance, if the new technology would be of the nature of wireless power transmission, it would only start to take off when the platform or protocol is open.

When this all happens the whole cycle will start over again.

Artificial scarcity in the broadband market

Last week the Wall Street Journal wrote about the introduction of data caps by cable companies. Comcast, AT&T and many other cable broadband providers apply data caps or are experimenting with putting data caps on their connections.

Here are few quotes from the article:

Comcast technically has a 250 gigabyte monthly limit on its 23 million Internet customers but stopped enforcing it in 2012. The company is running a series of trials with a data threshold of 300 gigabytes, and, in some areas, varying thresholds and an unlimited option for an extra fee.
Until recently, all of AT&T Inc.’s broadband offerings had limits ranging from 150 gigabytes to 1,000 gigabytes depending on a home’s connection speed.
For limited plans, AT&T charges $10 for every 50 gigabytes over the limit; Comcast charges the same.
Time Warner Cable says the company’s average household usage in December was 141 gigabytes a month and has grown about 40% a year.
Comcast says its aim is to ensure the heaviest users are paying more than lighter ones, since 50% of its bandwidth is consumed by just 10% of its customers.
AT&T says the change will include offering unlimited data to people who pay an extra $30 a month or who subscribe to DirecTV, which it owns, or its U-verse television service.

This is typical cable company behavior. In many areas, these companies enjoy a monopoly — or in the best cases a oligopoly — on their services. For this reason, these companies are completely focussed on extracting as much as they possibly can from their customers. Since there is no competition to speak of they can charge whatever they want. The pricing game for them is purely about maximization of revenue and ultimately gross margins.

However, the market is changing. Consumers — and especially the younger demographics — are ‘cord cutting’. The cable companies made lots of money with offering Triple Play packages (Internet, TV and telephony) but now they are confronted with changing behavior which leads to price erosion. People who choose to get internet only packages bring in less revenue.

Because of price erosion and declining revenue from their cable subscriptions, these companies need to find a way to combat this. The data caps are introduced for exactly this reason. It’s their way of ‘easing’ their customers to get back to paying more.

Cable companies know exactly how much money they can extract from their customers. Now they find themselves in a situation where that is not set in stone anymore. They’re rethinking how they price and sell their services. They are introducing artificial scarcity in the market to stop the price erosion.

In the worst possible scenario this means we end up paying more for all services. Cable companies will get us back to Triple Play pricing over time and now we will pay companies Netflix, Hulu and HBO separately for their streaming services.

‘Net neutrality’ how lofty in its goals will not bring us anything to prevent that. Ultimately there’s a total lack of competition in the internet broadband market and as long that’s the case, we will end up paying more for less.

This quote from The Verge sums it all up:

So schemes like data caps, which have already been used extensively in the wireless industry to reap as much money as possible from customers, exist solely to frustrate those customers — which is really an incredible situation in a country that ostensibly cares so much about the virtue of competition.

The future battleground of internet access

For decades, cable companies have been in an extremely comfortable position. They were — and still are — generating piles of cash and their market positions were untouchable. But something is changing: their once dominant market position is slowly falling apart. It is falling apart to the point that they risk become irrelevant. As any industry, their natural reaction is to fight back to recover their control and it is this reaction that ties directly into the discussion around net neutrality.

Historically, cable companies have de facto monopolies or duopolies in the areas they serve. It gave them significant market power on consumers & broadcasters alike. There was little choice than to just deal with them. They priced themselves to consumers in such a way that alternatives were just not competitive enough to consider while maximizing pricing to generate as much money as possible for themselves. While at the same time, cable operators receive fees from broadcasters — and in some cases cable companies negotiated part ownership — for the “honor” to be carried.

Though, the market is slowly changing. Phone services are not as important as they once were since consumers start to rely solely on their mobile phones. At the same time is television moving towards the internet. This leaves the cable companies with only a dumb data pipe towards the internet.

They are losing the iron grip, they once had on their markets. And here comes in net neutrality. Now what if the cable companies could pull the same trick they did with broadcasters, and apply it to internet companies as well? Let’s say, they appeal to Netflix to fork up a fee per subscriber for the ‘privilege’ to be available to their customers. If Netflix does not want to pay, they just slow Netflix to crawl so it is barely working during the evening hours. I am sure it will impact the number of subscribers Netflix has in the area serviced by the cable company.

But at the same time there is another battle front emerging for cable companies and that could potentially make them completely irrelevant to consumers. Their worst nightmare can become true, and that is that internet access will go completely wireless. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint are investing huge amounts of capital into building out and improving their 4G LTE networks. In 5–10 years, we will not need a cable company anymore. Our phones, tablets and computers will just connect to LTE.

Cable companies must have realized this as well. So how do you compete against that? Simple, build your own mobile network. The problem is that all usable spectrum for mobile phone services is unavailable. Their next best option is to use unlicensed spectrum and bet on existing technology to access that spectrum. Here comes wifi. Wifi is ubiquitous and every device has it. The challenge though is that the reach of wifi is limited and you need countless wifi cell sites to get some kind of continuous coverage in an area. Fortunately the cable companies can rely on their existing customers to turn their homes into their own little private cell sites.
So with cable companies going wireless and their willingness to try to squeeze every dollar they can get their hands on out of their customers and suppliers, it is only a matter of time net neutrality will make the jump to wireless as well.

Now, this begs the question of net neutrality is really that important. How bad is it that Netflix pays a fee per subscriber? They can just increase their monthly fees to their subscribers and be done with it. While this is true, it will put back market power back into the hands of large corporations with exclusive access to specific markets. These companies do not necessarily have the best interests of their consumers in mind with delivering their service. Bottomline companies only answer to their shareholders who want to see maximization of profits. Any industry with great market power bordering to a monopoly begs for regulation by governments. Typically these are only reserved for markets with lack of competition due to huge capital investments to service these markets. You see that with utilities and cable companies in the past. Their last mile investments were huge and it was not conceivable a positive return on investment with competition was possible. But this statement does not hold true anymore. Cables which went into homes and the ground are still going strong 30–40 years after they have been put in. Cable companies are moving or have moved part of the network to fiber which realistically will last them again 30–40 years. There is ample time for cable companies to recuperate their investments. At the same time, I do not expect that multiple cables go into every home. This begs for regulation for now. Consumers simply do not have a choice and there is a significant lack of competition in the internet access market today. Net neutrality offers that regulation. It is fair, easy to implement and — actually — increases competition on the internet itself.

Now all of this will change when wireless becomes an alternative for cable internet. Net neutrality can go when that point is reached. There is enough competition on the wireless market with 5 major carriers and possible a 6th in the form of cable companies going wireless.

This is why net neutrality is so important today.

The post-finishing waste land

When you show a 3D printed product to someone who has not seen a 3D printed piece before, there is significant chance that the conversation will be about the material. And that is not surprising. 3D printed pieces look rough, show “printing lines”, and feel different than regular materials.

For purely functional pieces that is not an issue. But often the aesthetic component is as important as the functional component of a product.

It is not so much about the capabilities of what can come out of 3D printer. It has been proven that a lot of things can be 3D printed. But is the material of the right type to be acceptable for a particular use case.

Does it have the right weight?
Does it have the right feel?
Does it have the right texture?

We can wait until 3D printing processes improve with new materials and new deposition methods to overcome the quirky aesthetic. But at the same time, there are real options out there to apply existing finishing options to 3D printed pieces.

The challenge is that many of the post-finishing processes are geared towards mass-production of products. And this does not apply to 3D printing. I have this beautiful vapor-smoothed FDM printed bowl. It is gorgeous but the process never made it to mass 3D printing because it was too cumbersome to scale. The interesting aspect of it though is that whenever I show it someone nobody asks about the material anymore.

I see many companies struggling with the concept of bring 3D printed parts to live with post-finishing. It brings a whole new level of complexity. And it needs more attention.

Download a human

Copy. Download. Live Forever.

People who are close to me know I am a Star Trek fan. I also have a long time wish to go to space — maybe some day. In my home, I have a iPad dedicated to the HD Earth Viewing Experiment on UStream which sends out a constant video feed of three cameras attached to the international space station ISS.

But secretly I do not believe in a Star Trekian future. Seriously I do not think it is a plausible future that we space travel as humans beyond our solar system. I think even Mars is quite a stretch.

Instead I think it makes much more sense to download our human brain into a computer and send that computer instead. Just imagine there is no need for food, water or other supplies + equipment necessary to make those journeys. It even does not matter so much how long the journey will take.

Computing power is progressing nicely and IBM already designed a computer to simulate a mouse brain. In another decade or so and we will see computers who are capable of emulating a human brain. Now at that point we can program an artificial intelligence which is indistinguishable for a human. We can program the computer anyway we like, but why not model it by copying actual humans? You might think I am insane, but it would make so much more sense to me.

The hardest thing is giving away

You always end up with less when working at an early-stage startup

People working in startups are all so familiar with the concept of giving away responsibilities. Whenever you start in a startup, you can count on the fact that you’re role is changing all the time. Regardless of whether responsibilities shift downwards or sideways, they are inevitable moving somewhere.

Your startup starts out with 3–4 people who do everything. Slowly, new people are added, roles are carved out, and responsibilities are limited. With each new influx of people these roles are reevaluated and the same ritual starts again.

The same applies as the company grows your personal capabilities are constantly evaluated. Your position within the company is constantly shifting and changing. The company often grows faster than your personal growth can keep up with. Or your role is carved up in 2 or 3 different roles and you have to choose between them.

All these things have nothing to do with failure or underperformance. It is about making the company grow as fast as possible while keeping everything manageable. But I can tell from experience it is sometimes hard to let go. Even it is going downwards instead of sideways. You might be end-responsible, but someone else is actually executing it. It is not the same.

It is for this reason that startups are not for everyone. You need to adapt and be comfortable with adapting. You have to embrace change and you need to be comfortable with finding your own limitations. But more so, nothing better to run into this because of the company you work is successful and growing up. On the end of the day, there is nothing more satisfying than bringing something to the world which is self-sustaining and impacting the world in its own way.

Wifi is not a mobile network

Wifi is great and sucks at the same time. The beauty of wifi is that it is a ubiquitous wireless standard. It is cheap enough to build into any other device. Since it operates in high spectrum bands (2.5Ghz and 5Ghz) the antennas can be small. You can put wifi in almost anything nowadays.

At the same time wifi is problematic for the same reasons. The wifi spectrum is polluted. Just open your wifi connection list and see for yourself. In a dense urban area you will see 15 or more access points. All these access points compete for the same spectrum in a small number of channels. At the same time this spectrum is shared with cordless phones, baby monitors and your microwave.

Now if that is not enough, the wifi frequencies are so high they have trouble penetrating through solid objects like buildings, cars or — even — trees. The signal does not propagate well in dense urban areas nor inside buildings.

For this reason it is really hard to build and maintain a wifi network which has bigger ambitions than connecting people in close proximity of an access point. It is definitely not the right technology as a replacement for a cellular network.

Now I wonder about many cable operator’s plans and programs to unlock their access points and allow their customers to roam their networks. It does not make sense at all. It all feels as more like a marketing campaign to add perceived value to their services than actually adding anything to their services.

Let me ask you, how often do you find yourself in need of wifi when visiting someone’s home?

Nobody cares about customization

Yes please on size, fit, material and color. No thank you on everything else.

With Shapeways I had a lot of interest into customization. It would make the perfect use case for 3D printing. I have been following the developments in the industry for some time now. But up until today, I can only conclude that people are not so interested in customization.

I think it is because people do not want to think about design as much as we like to think. They rather leave it up to the designer to design what they want.

Now this does not mean all customization. I primarily talking about customization with regard to the design of an item. There are plenty of opinions on color, size or fit. Just take a look at anybody’s iPhone and you see plenty of different background images and different arrangements of the apps on the screen. Also, people like to choose the color of their iPhone.

It is like buying a couch. I have an opinion on the size of the couch — two-seat, love-seat or three-seat — and the color. I have a preference for the material. But I never have had the desire to change the design. I just choose the one I like.

Same goes for clothes. I love to be able to select on size — it should fit right? — or the color. But I would not want to design it myself. I would like an idiot. I am not a clothes designer and never aspired to become one.

In the end it is about offering customization options which are relevant to people. This could be far reaching — from fit, color, size to material — but it almost never touches the design itself. The design is the domain of the designer. Everybody is fine to keep it that way.

Smart factories

One of the huge opportunities for 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing is the ability to produce in series of one. To me that statement embodies the enormity of the impact of 3D printing on the world of manufacturing. But it also poses challenges and in this post I would like to discuss one of these challenges.

This challenge is how to run a factory when every item flowing through the production process is unique and has their own manufacturing requirements. The production of 10.000 similar items using the same or similar process steps is inherently less complex than producing 10.000 unique products each with their own production steps and requirements. The problem is that planning and tracking so many variations in the production process is too complex for a human — or humans.

In manufacturing or supporting processes like warehousing the focus tend to be on automating process steps to reduce labor costs, create more control, better — consistent — quality and increase capacity. But for on demand manufacturing this is not enough or even a solution. It is about the planning and control of the production process for a product. A factory producing 10.000 or more unique products a day is unique in the world. A new set of problems need to be solved and no readily available solution is available today. Or simply: nobody has done this before.

I envision factories of the future become more self thinking systems and knows their capabilities. Product blueprints enter on one side and finished products end up in the warehouse. The whole operation is run by computer systems and no human is part of the planning or process control.

To be clear humans are still needed. Certain steps are better handled by a human (refill / maintenance of machines or specific process steps like assembly or packing of parts — all depending on the factory setup and supported production steps), but the human is just a resource in the factory. A resource which can be planned and directed by a computer. It is not about fully automating the factory but about the creating a smart factory.

So how does this work? A product production request comes in. Based on the product production requirements a production plan is generated. The production plan contains each step necessary to produce each part and — if applicable — how the product is put together. The production of the product is scheduled based on capacity and necessary process steps. Not only the machine are planned but also human operators where needed. In the end the factory runs itself in the most optimal way based on the incoming production requests.

I like to call this concept the smart factory. I know this term is not unique and if you search on the internet you find many references to smart factories. Mostly related to energy-saving initiatives. But in my mind the smart factory can “think” for itself.

Next to 3D printing as a manufacturing technology, this step is necessary to make on demand manufacturing or manufacturing in series of one a reality. In my mind there is no other way to make it scale.

Manufacture. use. recycle. repeat.

Just imagine an apartment, an apartment without any cabinets, closets or any other furniture to store things. The only things in the apartment are the things you use every day. Things like a couch, a table or a bed. In the bedroom there is single sliding door with a display next to it. On the display you can select the clothes you want. There is a convenient list of your favorites. You select a pair of jeans and a shirt. A subtle whirring comes from the behind the sliding door. After a few seconds the display says simply DONE and the sliding door unlocks. You open it and you take out items you just selected. They look and smell brand-new, no wrinkles, spotless exactly as they were the day you selected them. You did change the size somewhere along the way. Everybody gains a pound or two unfortunately when they get older.

You put on your clothes and walk to the kitchen. The kitchen is brightly lit and white. Again no cupboards or cabinets. There is a display sitting on the counter. You simply select “breakfast — alone”. A few seconds later you take your coffee mug and plate from the only cabinet. You make breakfast and enjoy the coffee. After breakfast you deposit the plate and mug in the recycle bin. A ritual you repeat every day.

You might wonder what the point is of this story, but it is my vision for the future of on-demand manufacturing. In this story I want to illustrate how a huge change will impact our daily lives. It is about products becoming temporary. You make them when you need, you discard when you are done. This may sound awful from an environmental perspective, but if you combine this with recycling the net cost is only energy. Given that energy is available in abundance — we just do not know how to capture / convert it to something we can use — such a process can work.

This future seems very plausible to me. But if this future will become reality, how it impact us, companies, brands, designers and trends? Will they still exist? How will they make money? Will there still be trends? Will local design become more prevalent? I spend quite sometime thinking about these lately.

In the past I wrote that I do not believe in a 3D printer in every home. I still feel that way. The future I write about in this post, is beyond 3D printing technology we see today. Today’s 3D printers are noisy, smelly, slow, expensive, inaccurate and unreliable. Some day all of that is fixed. And hopefully they fix a few other things along the way as well. It does not have to be a Star Trek replicator. That is ok. But when that day comes, I hope this future is possible.

Personalization is more customization

One of the most touted use case for 3D printing is personalization. Now personalization can mean many things and you see different executions of the personalization vision on the internet. For example the Statement Vase or MixeeMe. At the core, personalization enables the user modify a base design to fit to their personal taste. This sounds fantastic and can open a new world where people design their own products within a set of constraints. But when you talk to people about it, they are only mildly interested. The question is why that is?

Design your own dress at Constrvct

Design your own dress at Constrvct

In essence I think is that most people are not really interested in personalization. There are many reasons why people detract from personalization products. There is fear about their own capabilities and if they are capable of making a desirable product on their own. Another reason is that they lack inspiration. But the major reason is I think is that people are just not that interested to make their own products. In 99% of cases people just buy something off the shelve and they are happy with that. Why bother changing the design at all? Is it not the role of a product designer / company / brand to provide you with the best solution?

If you turn the question around and give people an off the shelf product they are interested in and you ask the question “Are you satisfied with this product?” “Would you like to change anything to the design of the product?”. Then you get interesting responses like I do not like the color or the material. Or they would like the item to be smaller or bigger. And here lies the opportunity. People are not that into personalization but more into customization. They would like to modify some generic features of the product to make it better fit their specific requirements.

A great example to me is clothes. I rather not design my own clothes. I am not even into designing a custom pattern or changing the color. But I am interested in my EXACT size. If you are big like me you always run into the issue that you are size is out. Or what happened to me the other day is that some clothing brand decided to make XXL to be XL. I ended up with a bunch of clothes I could return.

I can think of many examples where customization would make sense and would appeal to a consumer. It is just not the same as personalization. It is customization. Now I know there are many examples of successful and very useful personalization products on the internet. I particularly like Constrvct from Continuum Fashion. But I yet have to meet the person who is not a (aspiring) fashion designer who made the majority clothes themselves. For most people it is just not worth it and it only make sense when it is very special and appealing.

Can supply chain made simpler with on-demand manufacturing?

One of the challenges for launching products by individual designers and small firms is to setup and manage their supply chain. Launching a product from an idea is not easy. There are many things to take into account. A short list in context of 3D printing and on-demand manufacturing:

  • online fabrication services are useful, but cover only part of the process
  • a product needs to be assembled, finished and packaged before it is ready
  • order fulfillment and distribution is a lot of work and very repetitive
  • to get orders you need to have sales channels.

What I wanted to get across in that post is that beyond a product idea, to launch an actual product into the market is quite some work. You need to be prepared to contribute a significant amount of your time to bring a product to market.

That is looking at it from the individual designer perspective. For larger companies on-demand manufacturing gives opportunities to simplify their supply chain. I wrote about that in my post Impact of 3D Printing on Supply Chain.

One of the major challenges for individual and small companies for launching products is supply chain. To find, select and manage a small number of suppliers to manufacture and assemble your product is a challenge.

To get a product manufactured parts need to sourced. This could either be off-the-shelf parts or custom-manufactured parts. These parts are manufactured and shipped to the assembly point. At the assembly point, the product is put together, packaged and shipped. In each step of the manufacturing process, the reliability and quality of parts and product needs to be checked and monitored.

When the manufacturing and logistics of the product are set up, there are stock levels to monitor. The manufacturing of products overseas can take up to 6 weeks before the actual product arrives. The product designer needs to make choices on how much stock to keep and the size of production batches while taken into account the lead time of each of his suppliers.

Even for simple products like porcelain cups, this can be quite an undertaking.

It is a well-known secret that lots of product projects at Kickstarter fail just for that reason. Even though, the projects are successfully funded, the project owners can’t get the production up and running. It proves that many product designers just underestimate the amount effort necessary to setup and maintain a supply chain. According to a study done by professor Ethan Mollick 75% of technology and design-related projects at Kickstarter fail to deliver on time.

The interesting aspect is that every product designer / small firm is doing the same work and repeating the effort across markets and products. Even with the advent of on-demand manufacturing, the supply chain still exists and needs to be managed. The amount of effort the product designer needs to put in into the supply chain goes beyond the effort of designing the product itself.

There is an opportunity in the market for making supply chain simpler for product designers and small firms. There is a definite need for full-service manufacturing and logistic companies who take over the effort and let the product designer outsource the supply chain.

The mono culture of 3D printing

Today I came across a couple of renderings on Behance called No Limit, which are an artist impression on how the future of 3D printing could look like. Below is one of the pictures.

What struck me in this rendering is the clear separation of parts to create a whole product. I think it is also one of the biggest challenges in 3D printing. There is a tendency with 3D printing to print a whole product as a single continuous product. But in real-life products are not a single part and there are good reasons for that. The requirements for individual parts are different. No single material is able to match all of the required properties — especially in the limited offering of materials available for 3D printing. It is also one of the reasons why many products made using 3D printing are just not on the same level — visually and functionally — as mass-produced products. The exception is mono-material products like jewelry or ceramics.

It is interesting that there are not many articles available on combining 3D printed parts together to create a product. It is certainly necessary because properties like production tolerances and tensile strength are different for each material and 3D printing method. You cannot just design different parts and expect them to fit. Even made using the same printer with the same material.

It would be awesome to see more compounded parts to create new products. I think it will open much more opportunities to create and manufacture meaningful and useful products using 3D printing.

Online 3D printing services should watch out

The rise of home 3D printers should make the 3D online printing services somewhat nervous. Especially when you look at the quality of new products like Form-1 — although not yet on the market. In an earlier post, I wrote that I am not a firm believer in home 3D printers, but I do believe there is a market for them. The same market where a lot of the online 3D printing services are focusing on.

When online 3D printing services became available around 2008, the availability of home 3D printers was very limited. Certainly, no commercial home 3D printers were on the market.

Fast forward to today and the choice for home 3D printers is exploding. Not only that, but also their capabilities and performance are increasing as well while prices are dropping. Now this is the standard pattern for any new major new consumer technology, but it is a threat for the existing online 3D printing services.

I expect a significant drop-off of early adopter at online 3D printing services. These users are buying their own 3D printers and print most of their parts on those printers. They still do 3D print parts via online 3D printing services when they want a professional 3D printed part or a special material, but much less frequent. New users will still come to these services and have parts produced. But the question is how fast they will decide to either buy their own 3D printer or go to a neighbor, friend or family member with a 3D printer.

This behavior will pose challenges the current generation of online 3D printing services. They will need to position themselves beyond being a online 3D printing service. Even with their professional machines and better materials, the difference between the immediate and “free” competition of a home 3D printer is in my opinion not enough to survive. Each of them needs to try to find their own way of adding value on top of providing the 3D printing service. There are many options available like post-finishing or services.

The next 2 years will be important. I expect the home 3D printer market to mature quickly leading to major changes at the current generation of online 3D printing services. I cannot wait to see how this is going to unfold.

No 3D printer for you :)

Most media attention in 3D printing currently goes to home 3D printers. MakerBot just released their new Replicator 2 3D printer and opened a MakerBot retail store in New York. A year ago, they received $10M funding mostly from the Foundry Group.

3D Systems have introduced their Cube 3D printer aimed at consumers. And a new 3D printer called Form-1 is getting a lot of attention on Kickstarter because it overshot its funding goal by 2000%.

Often I read the expectations that there will be a 3D printer in every home in 5 years or a decade. I do not believe that. The applicability of the technology today is very low for consumers. I have a few reasons why I think that. In the next paragraphs, I will elaborate why I think 3D printing for consumers will not happen soon — if it happens at all.

The first reason is that the material quality of the current generation of printers is not that good. Even professional 3D printed parts need post-finishing to resemble a material which looks and feels good. And even when the part is post-finished, it is still a part and not a product.

Most printers just print in a single material. Please look around and see how many products are made of a single material? There are not many. Jewelry comes to mind and kitchen ware. And of course trinkets and gadgets. This pretty much sums up the inventory of 3D printed products available today.

There are definitive reasons to buy a home 3D printer. Many hobbyists use them to print parts for their hobbies ranging from remote controlled airplanes to Warhammer pieces. For these hobbyists to own a printer makes sense. The instant satisfaction and seeing your part build in front of your eyes right in your home is irresistible. Another reason is as a kids’ toy. 3D printers could definitely be the clay of the 21st century for kids. The ability to create and design on a computer and make those designs real on a home 3D printer is a very powerful concept.

So some people will own and buy a home 3D printer. I expect that those printers are also used to print parts for others — neighbors, family and friends. Another reason why I think home 3D printers will not be a huge market. The need to 3D print a part is not very high. It will become a machine like advanced power tools which most people do not own but lend from the neighbors or a friend.

As an educational tool home 3D printers are very powerful. I think the manipulation of physical form will become more prevalent in our society. It is good that our kids get the opportunity to start exploring and working with these concepts.

To me home 3D printers will not come into every home until they reach the status of a replicator — I mean the Star Trek one and not Makerbot’s new product. Until then, it will remain a niche tool owned by a small community of users.

3D printing over its top?

In August, Gartner released their yearly report called Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies. 3D printing is part of this report for the last couple of years. This year Gartner’s analysts have positioned 3D printing at the peak of inflated expectations. It certainly feels as that 3D printed cannot be hyped more than it is today.

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2012

Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2012

I can remember a few of the larger technology hypes of the past. At the end of 90s, ecommerce was definitely a hype. Online internet stores would be the end of all malls. Everybody and all goods would be ordered over the web. Ecommerce has gotten big, but it has made no real dent in physical retail. Tell me how many shopping malls have closed due to Amazon?

A little more specific example was the opening of the Amazon bookstore. The consensus was that all bookstores would fold. That never happened. Now Ebooks are actually causing bookstores to close.

Another one was open source software. The expectation was that open source software would replace all commercial software. Companies like Microsoft made it even their number 1 threat at the time. Today open software is indeed ubiquitous, but Microsoft still exists, kept its monopoly on desktop OS and office software and is doing financially quite well.

I can also vividly remember the hype on 3D on the web. In the late 90s, VRML was a definitely hype. According to mainstream media and experts 3D on the web would be the future. Everybody would browse and shop in 3D in a few years. Today we see a small revival of that hype with the introduction of WebGL. But 3D on the web is still not ubiquitous — and besides for some specific applications like games and visualizations — there is no real use of it on the web today.

To me, 3D printing is definitely overhyped. The media generally lacks details on the actual capabilities and performance of 3D printers. If you take those into account, the picture is much more sobering than how they would like to portray it.

3D printing is fundamentally interesting technology, and it will bring many advancements in manufacturing. I have written about this before, and I remain a huge believer in 3D printing. But it is not all what the media tries to make it.

Amazon’s platform for products

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about platforms — platforms on the internet. They form the basis of many prominent and successful internet service. When you can create a successful platform, it becomes part of the fabric of the internet. Platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon provide, are excellent examples. If you turn one of them off today, it will have a substantial impact on the internet. Whenever Amazon’s AWS service is down, it has become a news item. That is how essential and powerful platforms can be. Any internet service which is not a platform can easily be disrupted by a newcomer. But platforms are services which will stay forever. In that context and for some other reasons, I have been looking into Amazon’s platform and their API stack recently.

When you are unfamiliar with the Amazon API stack, you will be amazed on the amount of APIs this company makes available to her users. It is truly a platform. I have read somewhere that Amazon is religious about using APIs between systems on their own network. That approach is called a Service Orientated Architecture or SOA for short. The powerful side effect of such an architecture, it is only normal to expose this ability to the outside world.

Here is a list of the powerful Amazon APIs for e-commerce:

  • Product Advertising API
  • Fulfillment Web Service (Amazon FWS)
  • Marketplace Web Service (Amazon MWS)

It allows companies to fully integrate their own systems with Amazon’s. Products can be fed and updated, order and sales information can be downloaded, fulfillment and inventory management of stock, etc. The opportunities to use Amazon’s sales platform are almost limitless. And it does not end here. Amazon offers more APIs for their other product categories. A complete list of their other APIs can be found at http://aws.amazon.com/products/.

In 2002, Jeff Bezos send around the following within Amazon. He realized that Amazon needed to be a platform to be grow and scale. He did not use the term Service Orientated Architecture, he did not care, he just wanted to move Amazon as a company in a certain direction. He summarizes it in 6 points:

  1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.
  2. Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.
  3. There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no backdoors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.
  4. It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pub-Sub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.
  5. All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.
  6. Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired.

It is truly amazing, and it shows that Amazon is really a platform from the ground up. This interests me for two reasons:

  • ability to fully automate feeding products on Amazon’s marketplace and leverage their worldwide audience for selling products
  • options to leverage Amazon’s massive product inventory outside the realm of their own marketplace
  • visionary architecture of a true platform for products — be it either selling or creating

The rise of accessible and affordable manufacturing technology

The last 5 years I have been working in the 3D printing space. I have seen 3D printing rise in popularity. It went from a niche technology primarily used for prototyping applications to relatively well known manufacturing technology. You know that a technology is entering mainstream when publications like The Economist start writing about it. In a previous post about what excites me about 3D printing, I wrote that especially the digitization of manufacturing technology and the approach of building parts from the ground up are one of the most interesting aspects of 3D printing. It is a paradigm change in production, which is mostly still subtractive. Basically “beating the material into submission” to get what you need. In this post, I am revisiting that vision.

While watching the rise of hobbyist makers and independent designers / artists making their ideas, products and arts a physical reality, it becomes clear a new market is developing. This market could be described as one-off and small series of products developed by an army of independent designers. Their motivations are between solving a problem they have to the creation of new products or art forms.

The true innovation of which 3D printing is just a part lies in the fact that it enables people to make and manufacture products with relative ease. The setup costs are low, the design-to-manufacturing process is simple, and the manufacturing costs are low for small series. Anybody can basically do it. And it is not only limited to 3D printing. The same applies to laser cutting or CNC. On top of that, standard components of any kind — from charger ICs to lighting fixtures — can be easily bought off-the-shelf via a multitude of web sites.

When taking a broader view, you could say this applies to manufacturing as a whole. Whereby standardized components can be used and integrated into other products to make new products. The manufacturing process is simplified for a lot of products. Even when you open a Macbook Air nowadays, it is wealth of standardized components. The integration and procurement of these components is still quite complex, but it is getting simpler over the years. It is not inconceivable that, at some point, any knowledgeable hobbyist is able to produce his or her own Macbook Air for a relatively affordable price.

While manufacturing is getting simpler and more accessible, the true innovation of products will be in design and manufacturing of the components itself. The design and production of computer chips is a good example of components, which are not easy to design and manufacture — let alone customize. But at the same time mass-production does commoditize these components and they are available to all to buy and use. Remember how many people buy their own computer components and assemble their own computer?

I expect that integration and design of products will be further commoditized over the years. The same applies to software. The first shimmers of this change are starting to appear on the internet. Hardware startups are becoming more common. Pure hardware products pop up on a daily basis on Kickstarter. It is no longer the exclusive domain of large corporations. There is a huge opportunity developing here to enable product designers, hobbyists and entrepreneurs to design and sell their products.