Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bit By Bit

The Colonel is a bit of a futurist.

Emphasis on a bit.

When the Colonel was an active duty lieutenant colonel of Marines, a general officer added the following reviewing officer comment to a semiannual fitness report:  "... a bit of a visionary." 

While not exactly damnation by faint praise, the general's comment was just ambiguous enough to allow future promotion boards to read into the Colonel's record whatever they wished.  However, this post isn't about the vagaries of performance evaluations and their impact on advancement.  That's all muddy water downstream of a creek crossing, as far as the Colonel is concerned.

For the purpose of this post, he would like to think that the general's perception about the Colonel's foresight does have a bit of validity.
His love of history and the lessons of the past inevitably feed the Colonel's imagination for what lies ahead.  Depending on what he's been reading lately, his imagination wanders down one of two distinct paths influenced either by geo-political or technological advance factors.  He's wandering wordy down the latter path this morning.

One of the technological advances that fascinates the Colonel is the science of additive manufacturing (AM).  Or, more colloquially, 3D printing.  The Colonel is a bit of a believer that AM will be more of an economic disrupter than just about anything we've seen since Al Gore invented the internet.

The international standard for AM -- ISO/ASTM52900-15 -- defines seven categories of AM processes within its meaning: binder jetting, directed energy deposition, material extrusion, material jetting, powder bed fusion, sheet lamination and vat photopolymerization.

The Colonel ain't got the first clue what any of the above means. There ain't much math and science in his soul.  His liberal arts education, in and of itself, is hampered by the fact that the Colonel didn't go to college...; he went to Ole Miss.  

But, luckily for the Colonel, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the disruptive arc of this ICBM (innovative computing ballistic missile).  The impact of AM on many areas -- commerce, off-planet exploration, warfare, and healthcare, to name a few -- will be similar to the secondary explosiveness of the revolution in computing witnessed over the last half century.

AM has the potential to be the final nail in the coffin, currently being built by E-commerce, for brick and mortar commercial enterprises.

If you are in the second half of your life expectancy, think back to the 1970's (if you are a life rookie, still in the first half of your life expectancy, just follow along and nod in wonder as the Colonel increases your knowledge).  Computers -- specifically: electronic digital programmable computing devices developed in the middle of the 20th Century -- were the province and property solely of government agencies and very large businesses.  Within a generation, computers (transformed by advancing from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits) had become infinitely more powerful, fractionally less in size, and exponentially more affordable.  By the middle of the 1990's nearly every home had a ''personal computer" (PC).  A generation later, a billion of us on this big blue marble carry a "smart phone," each with exponentially more computing power than all of the computers with which NASA sent rockets carrying men to the moon. 

Connected via the internet, personal computers and smart phones have revolutionized consumer commerce.  The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis' economic research publication, FRED, shows in the graph below that as of the latest fiscal quarter (Q1, 2017) E-Commerce retail sales as a percentage of total sales has risen from less than one percent at the turn of the century to 8.5% today.  The growth curve displayed below looks pretty darned consistent to the Colonel's untrained eye.  The extrapolated expectation is that the percentage of retail sales conducted via E-Commerce will continue to grow steadily for the foreseeable future.         

"Disruptive" technological advances create new markets, challenge existing industries, and transform the means by which consumers access information, products, and services.  Seen as a "disruption," E-Commerce has undeniably changed the way consumers purchase retail goods, and this change will likely only accelerate going forward.  Disruption, ordinarily denoting a negative action, should not be viewed through that restrictive lens.  Disruptive technologies and innovations have regularly appeared on the scene throughout history.  Disruptive innovation has negative consequences for those that fail to adapt and positive consequences for those that early adopt.  The Colonel believes, with just a bit of vision, that AM (certainly capitalizing on, and leveraging, the revolution in connected computing) will be even more disruptive than the revolution in connected computing.

Using the personal computer analog, AM should follow a roughly similar line of advance.  Today, 3D printers are primarily the province and property of large commercial concerns and educational research, such as digital computers were in the middle of the last century.  Just as advances in digital computing inexorably moved computing power from large to smaller institutions, from libraries to homes, from desktops to hands, advances in AM will likewise, the Colonel believes without a shadow of doubt in his military mind, be marked by the same waypoints.

At some point in this innovation timeline, retail outlets will adapt to AM (if they haven't already begun to -- the Colonel is far from omniscient on the subject).  Imagine a store front with a very shallow back end. At kiosks up front, customers access products via computer (if they haven't already done so via their own web interface device) and place an order for an item to be "3D printed."  The retail outlet's automated system inputs the item's program to the relatively expensive (too expensive for home use at this point) AM machine which "prints" the item while the customer waits (as AM "matures" the wait will not be long).  The retail outlet has no inventory, except for the raw material used by the 3D printer. 

If you buy the premise posited in the last paragraph, now imagine the disruption to the current manufacturing and shipping industries. Significant portions of manufacturing will shift from relatively centralized to radically decentralized.  A significant portion of the shipping industry will shift from delivery of raw materials to factories, movement of intermediate forms of the final product from factories to assembly facilities, and movement of finished products through supply chains from distribution centers to retail outlets.  Instead, an increasing segment of the shipping industry will shift to delivery of raw materials to radically decentralized locations.  The overall template of shipping does not change radically, but the potential simplification of the supply chain offers economies of scale and time.  Not even considering, at this point, the impact of drone delivery mechanisms... 

Now, again using the personal computer analog, imagine AM machines, two generations hence, in every home.  The Colonel wants a new hammer.  He purchases the digital program via his internet interface and sends it to his personal 3D printer, which converts, via AM, raw material (from a variety of raw materials self-contained in his personal 3D printer -- think different colored inks in current 2D printers) into a hammer.  Or a dish.  Or a coffee mug.  Or a vehicle repair part.  Or components for a new smart phone.  The possibilities are as endless as they are exciting.

And, because the technology of AM is scalable and potentially self-replicating, the future is..., well, pretty darn exciting.

Couple AM with neural-machine interface (now becoming reality) and autonomous AI, and you have the potential for some serious disruption. 

We ain't there yet, but it's fun (or frightening, depending on your perspective) to think about.  And while he thinks about it, the Colonel will go mow the lawn.

The Colonel is looking forward to additive manufacturing his own autonomous, grass-height sensing, intelligent lawn mower.  That's when he'll know the future as really arrived!

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