First, in Chris Anderson’s new book “Makers,” reviewed in the Sept 24th issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, we hear yet again about 3D printers, and their increasing production capabilities, from cups to saucers to spoons. Enthusiasts are flocking to these new machines which, while in their infancy today, have the potential to change manufacturing as we know it in the decade ahead by creating a whole new industry of mini-manufacturers.
As author Anderson notes, “It’s exactly what happened with the Web, which was colonized first by technology and media companies… Then advances made the Web easier for regular folks… Today, the majority of the Web is built by amateurs, semipros, and people who don’t work for big technology companies…”
Meanwhile, NPR recently reported the existence of about a half dozen retail (mall!) outlets for these new “printers” which are actually production machines capable today of turning out key chains and tchotchkes, but poised to do much more. By extruding thin spools of plastic through heated, pencil like injectors, these new machines layer plastic into objects that are literally created in minutes, right before our eyes.
And in an article entitled “The Rise of the Robotic Work Force” in October’s Inc. Magazine (found here), author David Freedman introduces us to Rodney Brooks, creator of the Roomba vacuum, and now owner of Rethink, manufacturers of what may be the first truly “cheap” commercially viable industrial robot.
Brooks has created a robot (both pictured above) with an emphasis on simple, cheap, and thus… effective. The article details his creation of a robotic arm that can “learn” simple tasks (picking up objects, moving them, packing them, etc.) in mere minutes. Whereas traditional factory robots start around $100,000, and cost on average twice as much more to properly program, Rethink’s “Baxter” can be had for $22,000, ready to be trained in minutes and put to work.
Coming from the guy who created the first commercially viable household robot, the Roomba, it begs attention. Baxter is in final testing stages now and is slated for release soon. Brooks’ market is not just the 107,000 manufacturing companies with between 10 and 500 employees, but the 160,000 more with fewer than ten. It’s a very large market.
Projections are, however, that Baxter and his ilk could within a year replace 800,000 jobs – not a particularly well received prospect in these job-starved times. The counter-argument: most of those are dirty, repetitive, production line assembly jobs. Most people don’t want those jobs, and would prefer an alternative. Brooks’ alternative is that when you ramp up production via robots, you bring down costs and thus prices. You expand the market. The company grows. And in growing, it creates new, more vital positions for those displaced workers. “The PC didn’t replace people in offices,” he says, “It made them more productive.”
And the song remains the same: “Cheaper, faster, better.”