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April 2011

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The Return of the Maker
What do you sell to a customer who can make everything they need?

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The February 12, 2011 issue of The Economist featured a violin on the cover with the title, “Print me a Stradivarius. The manufacturing technology that will change the world.” The Economist is not exaggerating. The violin was printed using a 3D printer, a technology The Economist featured in a three-page article, in addition to the one page article for the cover story. If anyone was waiting for an official beginning of the Age of 3D Printing, that issue was it.

Since we first started covering 3D printing ten years ago 3D printing has gone from a vertical niche to a mainstream phenomena. New 3D printing manufacturers seem to be sprouting up like weeds, and new technologies are allowing everything from building structures to living organs to be printed. With the exception of the invention of the limitless power source, there is little doubt 3D printing technology will be the biggest revolution of the 21st century.

What role advertising will play in a world where the average person can make everything they need is something The Economist didn't go into, but it's worth considering. The quick answer is that advertising will survive, it just may not support anywhere near as many people as it does now.

The long answer is more complicated. To understand advertising's role in the post 3D printing world it's necessary to understand exactly how fundamental the change is 3D printing will bring about. The 3D printing revolution is bringing back a type of person we have not seen in ages, literally, the human as Maker.

For all of human pre-history, the average person had to make everything they needed, and they did. Social groups may have allocated the skills to different sexes, but “primitive” societies rarely show signs of individual specialization. Any pre-history humans could make the tools, clothing and shelter they needed if the resources were available. They were all Makers.

Then along came the agricultural revolution, then towns with specialized craftsmen, and eventually came the industrial revolution. Over a just few centuries, economies of scale created the modern factory and subsequent corporate life. As a result of this “recent” history we have become somewhat biased towards seeing life as a process of working to get the money to pay other people (or machines) to make the things we need. This revolution will change that.

The 3D revolution is really phase three of a much larger overall digital revolution. Phase one was the digital media revolution that made it possible to convert type, images, video and eventually objects into digital files. Phase two was the development of the digital media distribution system, the Internet, which allowed anyone to access nearly any digital file anywhere on the planet. Phase three is the development of printers that can print or materialize any physical object with a digital file available. It may sound fantastic, but the revolution is well underway.

At one time 3D printing was considered only economical for creating prototypes and never the finished product. No longer. Currently, it's estimated that about 20% of all 3D printing production is now the final product. It's estimated that by 2020 that percentage could rise to 50%.

It's not surprising. Some of the newer printers can print precision metal objects that would be extremely difficult to create any other way. It's only a mater of time before they make 3D printers big enough to print full size family cars. All the printer will need is a CAD file of the car, and enough raw material. (It's worth noting that a desk sized metal printer could easily print a working AK-47 machine gun, and eventually thousands will be made this way.)

So where does this leave the advertising industry. Well, downsizing is almost a certainty. With many goods made at home, there will be fewer commercial companies making products, so there will likely be fewer advertising people supporting them. Will it be the end of the advertising industry? Not at all.

We are moving towards an economy that will be a mixture of capitalism and open source. It can only be described as a mixed economy, but not in the usual sense of being part capitalist part socialist. In socialism, the government owns the means of production in the name of the public. In the mixed economy currently evolving, each individual will own the means of production themselves.

Businesses will exist, but the focus will be on design and service, not products. As companies like Red Hat have proven, a commercial company can thrive by providing support for a free product (in this case, Linux).

A few columns back I lamented about the post iPhone consumer, who always carries a small device that can scan any item's barcode and instantly find the lowest price that product is offered for sale, anywhere on the planet, and order it at the press of a button. It's going to get a lot worse. The consumer of the future will be able to scan the item itself, and then go home and print an identical copy. If the item has internal parts, the consumer will need a CAD file of the object, and we can expect a booming trade in illegal copies of CAD files for everything from electric toothbrushes to the latest model Ferrari. (It looks like lawyers will still have work, anyway.)

The outlook for the advertising industry isn't all negative. There will likely be growth areas as advertising adapts to the post 3D printing world. For instance, advertising may kick in earlier in the product release cycle. Instead of spending all their advertising budget promoting products once they go on sale, companies may find it beneficial to use professional advertising services to advertise for staff when they're ramping up development of a product. It would be easy to see a company like Google or Yahoo spending significantly on advertising to recruit top engineers for a new project.

Other opportunities may exist as well. Open source projects sometimes incorporate as non-profits and actually have a budget for advertising, though usually not as much as commercial companies. Still, work is work, and that will still matter.

In the future we're headed into, the advertising industry will have to invent much of the work it will do, but it should be up to the task. Several revolutions have come and gone since advertising was first practiced some thousands of years ago, and advertising is still with us. It's safe to say it probably always will be.

Glen Emerson Morris was a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2011 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved ' keywords: Internet advertising, Internet marketing, business, advertising, Internet, marketing. For more advertising and marketing help, news, resources and information visit our Home Page.

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