From crowdfunding to 3D printing to insourcing, innovation is changing the face of business.
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It's summer. There’s time to relax a bit and ponder the innovative trends we’ve learned about at the spring conferences and have been reading about in the news. I recently wrote about the software trends, so let’s move on to things—real things.
The last two years have been a collage of the future made manifest: gesture technology, IoT (Internet of Things), 3D printing, location-based technology, context-aware technology, nanotechnology, and genetics. Recently, we’ve seen human tissue1 such as the trachea2 developed in the lab and transplanted into people. And the list of lab-grown tissues is growing.
Outside the biotech world, new product creation might be happening very differently in the future. Nanotechnology, printed electronics, and 3D printing hold promise and are starting to make their presence felt.
Printed dental model using VeroDentPlus material.
The New Business
At a recent conference, I took a very close look at the 3D printing demo. The products look a bit crude (there is a place for that in prototyping). Plastics for toys and the like are good applications for 3D.3 However, I recently saw a Stratus case study of a dental model. Taking the guesswork out of a crown fitting, the dentist can make a model right in the office and try it on the patient, ensuring that the final enamel tooth will actually fit. (I guess one day they will be able to make the tooth right in the office). That would be a game changer in that industry. That got my mind thinking about radical changes in many, many industries and the potential for nano and 3D.
Take home appliances. Envision your custom kitchen. Maybe you don’t like the fit, color, or design of your appliances and you want an exact match to your kitchen space and design. A custom packaging of the blenders, cappuccino machines, popcorn machines, to your specs could be made in a near shore manufacturing assembler. An entrepreneurial type can go into business today and start manufacturing many different products. Or a small design firm who now wants to make ‘things’ can start up with virtually none of the start-up costs of big manufacturing. There are many products that are current opportunities.4
3D printers are getting better and cheaper and now come in all sizes from mega-industrial to desktop.5 (I noticed that Dell is now selling 3D printers for just a few thousand dollars.) This may create a new generation of ‘home crafts’ as in the old days when people made all their furniture and other items at home. Supply chain media keep pushing the impact of 3D. It may be a while until a major impact is felt;6 however, printed fabrics7 and simple consumer 3D products are here now.
Metal and precision fabrication methods are emerging from companies such as Microfabrica, who can support higher volume manufacturing.8 They offer this as a service. You submit your design. They build.
But disruptive ideas keep popping up. I recently heard about an amazing company that is using 3D printers to build pre-fab homes—concrete and all.9 Today these houses are fabricated off-site, as with the current business model. But one can easily envision on-site fabrication of a house, reducing the need to coordinate many suppliers, as well as reducing the transportation costs associated with moving components to the site.
We know the web and its ability for creating an ‘instant merchant.’ But bricks and mortars are not going away. The problem is it costs a lot to build a new store. What if your store could just pop up? By using a vacant retail space as well as POS with Square, you are instantly a merchant.
The New Investor—You. Today, rather than pitching to the big Silicon Valley investors, you can just pitch your idea online to crowdfunding sites such as Kickstart, Indiegogo, Crowdfunder,Smallknot, RocketHub, and many others that are popping up.
Contributions from individual ‘investors’ can be small, but still be significant to the founder. They demonstrate interest from a buying market. And just as America’s Got Talent or The Voice can put talent in front of the real listening/buying audience, bypassing the agents and big record company execs, founders can obtain funding and get noticed. Kickstart is interesting because you are pre-selling the end product. Many founders have raised all the capital they need to launch without a big risk on either side (buyer or seller).
How Does This All Come Together?
How does this all come together you may wonder? The cost of entry into business just got a lot lower again: using crowdfunding to sell the idea and obtain funding, purchasing (or renting) a 3D printer, using development space provided by your city’s innovation center, and using web-based software to manage the business and find customers.
Today we have thousands of SOHO (small office/home office) businesses that are call centers, transportation brokerages, fund managers, consultants, repair services, wholesale distributors, mobile healthcare stations, home cleaning services (robotics), net energy producers (I have a few of those in my neighborhood); or provide rides on demand (by driverless cars), and yes, are even research companies.
We can envision future small manufacturing facilities across the land being run right from people’s homes and financed by crowdfunding. That can have a profound impact on society and the economy. There is a huge demand for mass customization and custom products—from clothes that fit to homes designed the way you want them.
And speed too?10 The speed to entry just got a lot faster. We all remember and often quote Bill Gates’ book, “Business @ the Speed of Thought.” The future may go something like: Idea it. Fund it. Make it. Sell it. These new products could be sold across the world via Alibaba, Amazon, or other websites. Your expertise plus a cloud software subscription to sophisticated design or supply chain software, your crowdfunded idea…. The possibilities are limitless.
Living on ideas and dreams used to be a slur. But in today’s virtual global and social world, it just may be possible.