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Why ship atoms when you can transmit bits?

by Pete Basiliere  |  March 8, 2018  |  Submit a Comment

Think about it. Why would we want to move product from here to there when we can leapfrog mountains and oceans? We wouldn’t, of course, and that is why we 3D print.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab and co-founder of WIRED magazine, raised a similar question in 1995. In his seminal book, Being Digital, he discussed the idea in terms of videotaped movies.


At the time, according to the Wikipedia entry, the Blockbuster video store chain “employed 84,300 people worldwide, including about 58,500 in the United States and about 25,800 in other countries, and had 9,094 stores.” Why, Negroponte asked, would anyone want to go to a store, browse a limited selection of films, choose a videotape, rent it, bring it home, view it and then return the videotape to the store? “The issue to me is one schlepping (and returning) atoms…versus receiving no-return, no-deposit bits.”

Why ship atoms — even his hardcover book — when you can send bits of data to the consumer, who would then transform it into pixels on the screen they wanted, when they wanted to.

Netflix began in 1997 as a company that sent a steady stream of movie CDs to the home, all while suggesting other movies that you would like to watch based on past preferences. They were still shipping atoms, of course, but they eliminated the pain consumers felt when forced to go to a video store to select a movie. And just as videotapes were subsumed by CDs, CDs went the way of videotapes.

Fortunately, CEO Reed Hastings managed a transition beginning in 2007 in which the company stopped physically shipping atoms and began transmitting bits. Consumers could transform the bits into pixels and eventually show not just movies but also content that Netflix created, when and where they wanted on the stationary, portable or mobile device they wanted.

We are on the verge of a similar evolution of additive manufacturing. Why send CAD files to a distant supplier only to have them convert the files into physical goods that must be shipped across mountains and oceans? Instead, we should be converting the bits into the physical products by using 3D printing where they will be consumed, when they must be consumed.

Impossible, you say? Do not say that to the medical device industry. Yes, there are providers such as DiSanto Technology (now a GE Additive company) who offer medical device printing as a service, and those companies will prosper for some time to come. Yet hospitals and other institutions are 3D printing implants, prostheses and practice models where they are needed, today. According to the Physicians as Manufacturers: The Rise of Point-of-care Manufacturing report just published by the SME, 16 of the top 20 hospitals as ranked by U.S. News and World Report’s have implemented a 3D printing strategy.

More and more the bit-to-atom conversion is taking place on-site. Historically, dentists would take a mold of a patient’s mouth, an uncomfortable procedure if there ever was one, and send the result to a lab. A couple of weeks later the metal crown would arrive and be fitted to the patient. Then digital X-rays came into being and a file could be transmitted to a nearby dental lab. Today the 3D printing can be done in the dentist’s office, within hours of the original scan.

Now take this concept to another level: 3D printing of parts, authorized by and with files provided by the OEM, at remote locations, using files the OEM provided. 3D printing as a service platforms are being developed and implemented by the likes of Dassault Systèmes, Grow, Leo Lane, SAP and Siemens. The platforms offer the potential to securely transmit file data to be 3D printed at a distant location, while enabling the OEMs to maintain intellectual property protection, restrict the usage and be compensated for their investments.

Why ship atoms when you can transmit bits?

Additional Resources

Category: 3d-printing  additive-manufacturing  advanced-manufacturing  supply-chain  technology-and-emerging-trends  

Tags: 3-d-print  3d-print  3d-printer  additive-manufacturing  arcam  dassault-systemes  digital-printing  disanto-technology  ge  ge-additive  grow  leo-lane  mit  mit-media-lab  netflix  nicholas-negroponte  rd  sap  siemens  u-s-news-and-world-report  wired  wired-magazine  

Pete Basiliere
Research Vice President
12 years at Gartner
18 years IT Industry

Mr. Basiliere provides research-based insights on 3D printing and digital printing hardware, software and materials. Mr. Basiliere's Maverick research coined the term Generation AI, people born after 2010 who will not know a world without application intelligence in their lives. Read Full Bio

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