Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Commoditizing the standardized, commoditizing the individually customized 6: post-assembly line production and the emergence of a new personalized production capability 2

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 3, 2013

This is my sixth installment in a series on the changing nature of production and commoditization (see Business Strategy and Operations – 2, postings 364 and loosely following for Parts 1-5.) And this series installment is about a third way approach to manufacturing that I see beginning to emerge: personalized automated production.

I began that discussion in Part 5, citing on-demand printing as a working if still early stage example of how personalized automated production systems can arise and develop. And I discussed the development of do-it-yourself on-demand printing kiosk machines such as the Espresso Book Machine as a significant and even break-away example of how this can work. In follow-up to that, I note here that this and similar approaches to book and document printing and publication, collapse in the supply chain as well as production processes, and both remove steps from them and automate essentially all of the steps that are left (a process called disintermediation.)

I turn in this posting to consider a second personalized automated production system: 3-dimensional printing (3-D printing). A great deal has been written about 3-D printing, and much more will be added to that on how these manufacturing devices work and on what they can be used to make, and from what raw materials. I will simply note here that these devices can be used to assemble three dimensional objects that at their simplest, mimic the shape and form of pre-manufactured objects that are being copied.

Early model 3-D printers were very limited in both printer product resolution and in choice of materials that could be used in producing copies. And copies produced were for the most part only usable as grainy, low-resolution 3-D depictions of what an original looked like but without any of the original’s functionality. Think low quality stage props. Improvements and innovations to the 3-D printing process and to the equipment used for it have begun to change that, with higher resolution, finer detailed replication, replication made with a wider range of more functionally versatile materials and at least the beginning of a capacity to make functionally useful replicas as 3-D printer copies. I begin this posting there, and simply add that I expect these development and improvement trends to continue with matching drops in costs for 3-D printing per se, and increasing availability of 3-D printers for use by wider and wider consumer audiences.

At this time, I see a very real need to draw a sharp distinction between 3-D printing as a manufacturing option and process, and the high fidelity duplicative processes that we associate with conventional 2-D printers, and particularly with photocopy machines.

• Objects to be copied and 3-D printed do not have to be anywhere near the equipment or materials that would be used to make a copy and even a high resolution functional copy. In fact the precise model/pattern that is to be copied need not even exist, and certainly not in all details such as precise size and scale to be printed.
• All it takes is the set of pattern details and specification that a 3-D printer would capture and follow as its blueprint for making a replica copy. And that might mean making an exact replica and in all details, or it might mean making a modified replica where certain build parameters (e.g. precise size) might be changed to better meet end-user needs. Or the design and build parameters might have simply been calculated as for an object that has not existed before – but that could and with those precise specifications.
• That is where this becomes personalized automated building and manufacturing. And the market for objects subject to this type of manufacturing becomes a market for design template files that spell out in detail what the 3-D printer is to do to make a copy, and whether a preexisting original actually exists in fact or only as a design pattern in a computer.

And with that as background, I turn to consider copy functionality, and a very particular type of it, that I see as becoming increasingly important: smart technology functionality. And with this, I connect at least this part of this series to a second series that I have been posting on the emerging internet of things (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time – 2, postings 211 and loosely following for Parts 1-13.) And I particularly cite its Part 3: the active and interactively connected network in this context.

• More and more of what we own and use is becoming if not smart, then flexibly clever and capable of at least passing a Turing-like test within the parameters of its range of expected activity.
• When underlying functionality is hidden in a connected and supporting network, and invisible as to precise source there, it becomes easier and easier for any given network node device to seemingly pass such a test.
• As a next step in 3-D printer and product evolution, if products manufactured in these systems can be built to connect intelligibly into specific user-specified networks of things, and into the internet of things as a whole, they will start out at least able to simulate what is going to evolve into a seeming automated brilliance.

Let me take this out of the abstract with a very simple example that is already being realized.

• A ceramic/pottery material product has been available for years now, as of this writing, for helping home gardeners keep track of when their indoor potted plants need watering. When the soil gets too dry, these ceramic/pottery wedge shaped products, shaped something like an earthworm and pushed part-way into the soil, changes color. But this is a one model fits all device and cannot give different responses when pushed into a pot intended for plants needing high water levels in the soil, or desert plants that would easily and quickly drown and die from that much watering. And they can only detect moisture levels in the pot soil and nothing else and they cannot trigger any remediation response even when that would be beneficial.
• I recently saw a smart technology alternative that can detect moisture levels in the pot’s soil, and sunlight levels that a plant in that pot is being exposed to, and whether that plant needs plant food to adjust the levels of specific nutrients in its soil. And it can be calibrated to the general type of plant, for example, recognizing and reporting soil water levels according to its particular s water needs.
• Now let’s think this example to a next level. If this device were networked into a larger functional system it could be programmed or externally controlled by a computer and automated systems, or by human override, to water a plant where the soil is too dry – by sending signals to a watering system to tell it when to turn on and for how long. In principle, this type of devise could also open or close window shades, or change the polarity of a film over the window glass to control the levels and quality of light passing through and hitting that plant too. The end result emulates a smart gardener. And with that, detail added I bring this back to 3-D printing, and I make note of some rapidly emerging integrated circuit technologies that could in principle be laid out upon and functionally built into objects assembled by 3-D printers.

The first such technology of note is the field-programmable gate array.

• A field-programmable gate array is a general purpose integrated circuit that is designed to be configured, and set up to carry out specific functions, by the consumer or by a designer/producer after it is manufactured and when it needs to be set up for specific functionality and use. Think of these circuits as functionally blank slates with capacity to be customized by or at least for an end-user for their specific usage needs.
• In principle at least, a 3-D printer set up with a design file for building these sensors could be programmed to build or at least incorporate in these circuit types, here set up for maintaining a specific type of plant. It could be programmed to configure them to connect into a secure home network system and work with other devices set up to connect into that network too, there combining them with other standard component building blocks available as its 3-D printer raw materials. And one of those connected devices and network nodes would actually water the plants in that pot when so prompted – but only then as far as these automated controls are concerned. And a second such connected device might manage sunlight availability – but with that control prioritized along with other programming decisions flowing through the network as to when to open and close the blinds or otherwise change levels of light coming in, for other reasons.

The second integrated circuit technology that enters in here is the laser printer producible chiplet, as currently being developed at Xerox as a next generation of integrated circuit design and functionality (see John Hewitt’s April 9, 2013 posting: Chiplets: Xerox’s grand vision for next-generation computer assembly.) This technology could almost have been developed with 3-D object printing in mind as a major anticipated application, and it does hold promise for adding electronic circuit functionality, control and networking capability into 3-D printer manufactured items. This technology could be used to assemble and add in the precise mix of pre-programmed standardized, and open programmable circuits needed to build devices for active networks of things – and for the potential of these systems that goes way beyond the needs or capabilities of the houseplant management example I cite here. And I stress that these are all laser printed, so in principle a 3-D printer might actually be able to build connectable devices such as this from a pool of largely generic components. (Yes, I highly simplify here, leaving out a great many steps and considerations, but this example should be sufficient as stated to establish my basis points.)

I am going to continue this discussion in my nest series installment, there considering nanotechnology materials, metallic glass, high temperature ceramic superconductors and the growing flood of new and exotic materials that are coming to be our manufacturing building blocks for 21st century products and production systems. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations and its Part 2 continuation page.

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