There Is Always Another Way

Jump back a couple of decades and examine the telephone system. How many miles of twisted-pair copper wire were installed? Millions of miles connected homes to the trunk lines and hundreds of thousands of miles of those.

How many miles of wire will be needed if a developing country wants to add telephone coverage today? Few, maybe none. The technology changed, and it is cheaper to create cell service than create trunk lines and twisted-pair service to houses. Never assume the old ways are the only ways.

Manufacturing

Many have noticed the expanding world of 3D printing, but most don’t recognize the possibilities. The University of Maine has 3D printed a 25-foot boat. It weighs 2.2 tonnes.

Not everything 3D printed must be plastic. Sintering has been a known technology for centuries. Laser-powered additive metal printing is not so different. Better and cheaper ways will appear as time passes, and parts will be more readily available. As manufacturing returns to North America, the cost of machinery and space will be offset in part by the new technology. If you are going to build a factory, you don’t use 10-year-old technology. Would it be exciting if the businesses returning from China were the technology leaders and China used obsolete methods?

Where it will happen first.

Short production runs. When people think of manufacturing they usually think of the auto industry. Millions of identical parts created and stored seem like a step best served with conventional methods. What about parts for 80-year-old large electric motors. Making them conventionally one at a time is too costly. Suppose you could just toss a set of instructions into a 3D metal printer and fetch the part you need an hour later? If you had the choice of printers near you, shipping would be a minor problem too.

Prototype parts. New devices you want to build are expensive to push to the proof of concept stage. You can make them in rough but not inexpensively. Building tooling for long production runs is costly, and you must be sure it will fit and work reliably. 3D printing can reduce the costs enough to be able to experiment as you design.

HIgh precision parts.

People have solved the problem of eyeglass lenses and contact lenses, but what about a new knee joint. If a 3D printer can build one to a fraction of a millimetre tolerance, would that help?

In a more mundane form, you have a broken leg. How about a strong, light cast made to your exact dimensions? These exist now.

Hobbyists

Innovation is usually more closely related to quantity than quality. When the printers become cheap enough, there will be thousands of amateurs experimenting. Most will do little more than build combs, but that’s okay. Distributed use quickly finds new ways to do old things.

Refinement requires different skills. That’s what R&D is about. research is open-ended. You don’t usually know how it will work out until you do the experiment, and most experiments fail. That’s why you need many. Development is different. Once research finds a way, development is engineering, material science, tooling, and price. To do that now, we know most of what we need.

The bits to take away

How many scientific endeavours are moving from research to the development side? Once something is an engineering problem, it is all but available. It might be a decade, but it is inevitable. Notice quantum computing, cold fusion, nanobots, AI, non-organic and non-synthetic pharmaceuticals, small fission reactors, etc.

“The science of today is the technology of tomorrow”  Edward Teller

3D printing is well along on the engineering and delivery path. Refinements to come.

Captain Picard’s replicator is still a ways off, but some aspects are close.

Not all technology is a blessing, but most of it is. Be alert for opportunities.


I build strategic, fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways to achieve spending and estate distribution goals. In the past, I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning. I have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email at don.shaughnessy@gmail.com.

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