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The Future is Now – The 3D Printing Revolution

I created this blog and named it Symmetric Information to educate readers about the world around us. You can read more about it in my very first post. There, I discuss the imbalance in knowledge that is apparent in society. The few know too much. The many know too little.

To follow through on my mission, I want to discuss one of the most important upcoming inventions of our generation. Although it has been in development for roughly twenty years, only a few people are either aware of it, or its future potential. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the 3-Dimensional Printer.

Your reaction right now is either one of the following:
1) Your jaw just dropped.
2) You’re calling your local priest to ask how this is possible.
3) You just shared this video on Twitter or Facebook.

This isn’t just a single bogus Youtube video. 3D Printers are very real. As usual, let me give you some background to these devices. Note! I am not an engineer. I decided to actually have a social life in college. Thus the following technical explanation is derived fully from research I have done myself over the past couple of days. If I make some errors in my explanation, please don’t send me death threats.

In 1984, Charles Hull, the co-founder of a firm named 3D Systems, invented stereolithography. That monster of a word is short for creating a three dimensional objects from digital data. To explain it in layman’s terms, once an object is stored as digital data, a powerful laser is fired at a vat containing the material that is to be used for printing. This can be polymer, plastic, resin, and even gold and silver. If my attempt at an explanation was unsatisfying for you, here is a 1 minute clip to help you out.

Over the next decade, Hull’s invention was further developed. Newer objects using never materials were printed at a faster pace. Originally, 3D printers were used to develop prototype engineering parts. But with faster, more accurate and more diverse 3D printing designs, its potential grew. Here are just a few breakthroughs in 3D printing:

-In 1992, the first house parts were printed.
-In 1999, technology was developed to scan cells and 3D print human tissue.
-In 2006, a 3D printer was invented that could use multiple materials in a single design.
-In 2008, a 3D printer printed some of the components for another 3D printer.
-In 2011, we got the first 3D printed car.
-And in 2012, a 3D printed prosthetic jaw was used in an implant
Below is a picture of the first 3D printed car

URBEE-A-660x438

That’s it. Phasers are next, and I hope you set them on stun. You can do more research about how these printers work and what they can print. The technology is still in its infancy. Intricate software designs cannot be printed just yet. You can’t print an iPhone or an Xbox.  However, I can bet a lot of money that this technology will continue to be developed. When Steve Wozniak first invented the mainframe computer, or when the Internet was first developed, everyone who doubted its potential back then has now been proven wrong. But for now, lets go on to the implications of 3D Printing.  In my view, there are three main issues to ponder about: the potential economic impacts, copyright issues, and gun violence.

Economic Impacts of 3D Printing

The first thing that came into my mind when I first saw 3D printing was that this invention would change the world of manufacturing. Much like the way the Industrial Revolution transformed the manufacturing industry during the 18th century, 3D printing could very possibly do the same within the near future.

First of all, 3D printing would change the supply chain as we know it. In today’s world, the supply chain for most consumable goods is very similar. Raw materials are collected and manufactured to produce a certain good. That good is then bought by wholesalers who later sell them to other stores. Finally, those stores sell them to consumers. This process can be very capital intensive (both physical and financial) and can sometimes require a lot of manual labor.

However, if 3D printers are introduced into the fold,  the only step in between the collection of raw materials and purchase by consumers could be the design and printing process. I’m sure you can imagine how this would make production much quicker and would save a ton of money and effort that normally goes into manufacturing.

The same impact could also be felt in inventory. Especially in small and mid sized manufacturing industries, the need to maintain an inventory might become obsolete. If a company can quickly 3D print a product desired by the consumer or another retailer, then why maintain a warehouse full of inventory. Thanks to 3D printers, supply and demand will be more in sync with one another. Note that I did not include large sized manufacturing industries in this analysis. I’m aware of the fact that as of this moment, if you go to a car dealer, you can’t just ask for a Honda and have them print it for you in 5 minutes. But this video shows that 3D printing convertibles might not be so far into the future as we assumed.

If you want an example of sales without inventory take a look at Shapeways.com. Similar to Amazon or Ebay, This website contains designs that you can buy and then print on your own 3D printer. Again, like Amazon or Ebay, you can even create your own personal designs and sell them to to others. It includes furniture, small gadgets, board games, jewelry, mechanical tools and even drones. None of these goods are sitting in a warehouse. They’re all just designs ready to be printed. If you have a 3D printer at home, then you don’t even have to go to a store, making the supply chain even shorter. To give you a better understanding, Here is a screenshot of Shapeway’s home page.

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Of course, like all breakthroughs in production and technology, 3D printing will have a profound impact on the economy. Companies that adapt it into their business model early on will have a greater advantage over their competitors. The act of 3D printing will also mean that a lot of traditional manufacturing jobs will be lost. However, similar to all major shifts in social and economic trends in history, new jobs will surely be created. When the automobile was first created, carriage drivers and horse doctors lost their jobs but taxi drivers and auto mechanics appeared. What’s most likely to happen with 3D printers is that manufacturing jobs will become more local. Instead of having to import manufactured goods from East Asia, companies will be able to save on massive fixed and variable costs by just maintaining printers closer to their point of sales.

Of course, I’m no prophet. I could be proven wrong but this is my best guess of how 3D printing will effect the economy in the future. For now, lets move on to copyright issues.

Copyright Infringement 

With the ability to scan and digitally reproduce objects in 3D printers, intellectual property infringement issues are bound to occur. If 3D designs fall on the internet, similar to the way movies are shared on P2P website online, there will definitely be people who will opt to illegally download scans. Today, people are torrenting the latest Breaking Bad episode, tomorrow they will be torrenting the designs for a 3D printed robot. Similarly, if someone buys a product from a store, they could surely scan it at home and produce copies of it.

This isn’t just a problem that will happen in the distant future. It’s already starting to happen now. Earlier this year, HBO sent a cease-and-desist letter to an individual who was 3D printing iPhone docks that looked like the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones.

peoa3

You may have already seen the similarities between the music/film industry and 3D printing regarding copyright issues. Its true that there are many similarities. Napster, Kazam and Limewire forced the music industry to adapt and save itself from near extinction. The music industry responded with the likes of the iTunes store and Spotify. Manufacturers and designers will also have to adapt when the time comes.

However there is one important difference to observe. Songs and movies are all artistic products that can be copyrighted. Of course you can produce unique artistic objects on 3D printers too. But what about simple objects such as chairs, shovels, and as we saw in the first video, wrenches. Have a nice time trying to get a patent for a chair. See how that works out for you. But what if you design a chair with a unique design or ornament? Is that original? If I download your design and print it out, can you sue me? This is where things are going to get legally messy. In turn, a new profession of lawyers will have to be hired. As I stated in the economic impacts, even though jobs will be lost, new jobs regarding 3D printers will be created.

How will manufacturers and designer fight back 3D printing? Only time will tell. In the meantime, expect the intellectual property disputes to proliferate, almost as rapidly as the technology itself.

Weapon Production

3D printing copyrighted material is the least of our worries. Whats to stop criminals from 3D printing guns based on designs posted online? Of course that hasn’t happened yet right? No one is that evil. Right? Right?

Oh boy. Here we go. Its has been human nature to weaponize every technology we create and it appears that we are doing it again. Governments can put regulations on sales of weapons manufactured and sold by gun producers as much as they want. But what about guns posted online and printed on 3D printers? I don’t want to start a debate on gun control here but we have to recognize the fact that this technology, if used for violent purposes, will make it easier for criminals to obtain guns than ever before.

Conclusion

At the outset of the Internet or the steam powered engine, I’m sure that people did a similar analysis to the one I have done now. And back then, the ones to act first and adapt were the ones that became more successful than their peers. The price of 3D printers are dropping rapidly. Today, a personal 3D printer can be purchased for less than $10,000. Thus, it is extremely important to not fall behind on this great opportunity.

My predictions may not come entirely true, however I believe that it is important to bring this invention to the attention of the public. The way to end information asymmetry starts by educating people about crucial impending events, and I hope that with this post, I have done my part for today.

3D printing is already shaking our age-old notions of what can and can’t be made.”
-Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab

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New iPhones Unveiled – Has Apple Peaked?

On September 10th, Apple unveiled two new iPhones, the iPhone 5C and the iPhone 5S. Another year, another new iPhone, and another chance for me to share this classic Futurama clip.

Both iPhones will be available in the United States starting September 20th. This announcement had been expected for quite some time now. Over the past year or two, Apple had been facing several troubles.

1) It has lost the majority in the smartphone market share to Samsung. Though Apple is extremely dominant in the United States, Samsung, integrated with Google’s Android operating system, is outselling Apple in the rest of the world thanks to its cheaper prices.
2) Its earnings have dropped. Yes Apple’s products still have a very high profit margin and the company’s overall earnings are relatively high, but this year, the company reported its first decrease in earnings since 2003. As evidenced by the following graph provided by Yahoo Finance, this caused the price of Apple’s stock to decrease from above $700 in September of 2012 to a low of less than $400 in April 2013 (Apple’s current share price is at $467). The drop in price eroded almost $57 billion of market capitalization.

apple history

The expectation was that Apple would release a much cheaper iPhone, so as to sell more units in emerging markets such as China and India, where Apple is being outsold by firms that produce cheaper smartphones. China and India are the two most populous countries in the world with a total of over two billion people. Additionally, China is the 2nd largest economy in the world and India is the 10th largest economy in the world. The cheaper iPhone would have given Apple deeper penetration into these markets and would have allowed Apple to recapture the majority of the global smartphone market share, not to mention boost profits. What we got was the iPhone 5S and iPhone 5C.

The iPhone 5S is a more developed version of the current iPhone 5. Its most buzz creating features include its ability to allow the user to secure their phone with fingerprint recognition, noteworthy advancements made on the camera, a faster processing speed, and additional features added to Apple Maps and Siri. A side note on the faster processing speed. How much faster can phones get? Seriously! It already takes a mere second or two to run any application. If that’s what draws you to drop $500-$600 on a new phone, you are insanely impatient. I digress.

Apart from a few minor upgrades, the iPhone 5C on the other hand is extremely similar to the iPhone5. This is what was supposed to be the ‘cheap iPhone’. However, with its price, Apple revealed that they are not willing to give up their position as the premium seller in the market. The entry level iPhone 5C without a contract will be roughly 599 Euros in Europe, 4488 Renminbi in China and 35,000 Rupees in India. Those are still pretty high prices for those countries. Even though wages have risen in China over the past few years, they are still much lower when compared to developed nations. It is much more sensible for an Indian or Chinese individual to buy a cheaper lower-end smartphone.

The question is, will these new series of products (and the newly revealed ios 7 operating system) bring Apple back to its former glory? There isn’t much doubt that Apple’s new series of products will mend its short term concerns. The cheaper iPhone will help sell more units in emerging markets even if less than expected. It is also crucial to note that Apple is on the verge of hammering out a deal with China mobile, a Chinese mobile network provider that services 700 million users. Penetrating that customer base of 700 million will be a huge win for Apple.  Again, the new products will surely bring excitement to Apple and boost the firm’s profits as well. However, if we look at Apple in the long run, it is possible to say that Apple has peaked. For the moment being, the company is no longer an innovator, but an emulator. This is to be expected. In any economic situation, when one party supplies a scarce product or service, they will be profitable and will be able to charge higher prices. That was the situation when Apple first entered and formed the smartphone market. But as supply increases relative to demand and the product/service becomes less care, the company most focus on keeping up with the competition (eg. Samsung, Nokia/Microsoft, HTC).

Of course we don’t know what crazy projects Apple has got brewing deep inside their headquarters. I expect them to develop something similar to Samsung’s recently released smartwatch. There are also rumors of Apple being in the process of developing a television. I’m not saying that Apple is dead or that Apple’s days are coming to an end. The company is founded and run by innovators and visionaries. But competition is no longer idle, and unless Apple leads the way into a new revolutionary market, its highest point is behind us.

To end this post, here’s a little tip for all you investors out there. Don’t assume that the hype created by Apple’s product announcements equate to a massive spike in share prices. The following graph assembled by Bloomberg shows that after Apple’s past product releases, Apple’s share price either stayed stable or dropped in the short term. Play it safe for now.

apple release

“You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out”
-Steve Jobs