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From the real to the virtual and back

People who know me know I love Indian food. Indian food is very knowledge-based. I’ve come to that conclusion because despite having an entire shelf of cookbooks, I can’t make a curry dish to save my life. But because I’m a frequent customer of several Indian restaurants, I’m often allowed to enter the inner sanctum—that is, the kitchen—900-degree tandoori ovens and all.

After extensive, “hands-on” research, I’ve discovered that very few Indian cooks work from recipes. Instead, the majority of them have learned their craft through tacit knowledge transfer from a family member such as a grandmother or great aunt.

Maybe it’s just as well. Not having a 900-degree clay oven around may very well be what’s kept me from burning my house to the ground. So you can imagine my sheer delight when I discovered “Rotimatic”, a “3-D printer” for Indian bread that’s normally prepared in one of those clay-lined infernos.

As I continued my research, one discovery led to another, and pretty soon I found myself in a whole new world called the maker economy. There you can not only have freshly made roti ready to eat in four to five minutes, but also in the not-too-distant future you’ll be able to build an entire house, hopefully not because you mishandled some super-hot oven intended for use only by trained professionals.

Coming full circle

Here’s a brief history of how the interface between humans and the world of making things has evolved. In the years leading up to the 19th century, the interface essentially consisted of: user > hand tool (ax, shovel, wheelbarrow, plow, sometimes aided by horses and oxen). That was followed in the 19th and early 20th centuries by user > power tool (steam engine, internal combustion engine, electricity). The transition to fossil fuels resulted in explosive growth in the volume of physical goods that could be produced and transported over large distances.

By the end of the 20th century, the dominant human-machine interface became: user > information system. That was accompanied by similarly explosive growth in the speed and volume of information produced and delivered.

For the 21st century, the new model is: user > information system > sensor + actuator. It will result in the ability of individual users to create large quantities of one-of-a-kind physical objects, many of which will be highly interactive and intelligent.

The upshot for the enterprise of the future is that instead of moving bits around, you’ll be moving bits in ways that design and produce smart physical objects. As billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel tells Fortune magazine in a recent article, “We’ve had enormous progress in the world of bits, but not as much in the world of atoms.” That’s all about to change.


In previous articles, we’ve shown that intangible asset values typically outweigh their tangible counterparts by about four to one. We don’t expect this ratio to flip anytime soon. But those crusty old tangibles have been staging a comeback. The new technology of 3-D printing is getting help from a few “old-timers” like open source software and collaborative computing.

As a KM’er, you’ll definitely want to consider hopping on board this emerging megatrend. It’s best to start now while the waves are mere ripples. To begin with, think of the maker economy in the same way you might think of online publishing.

After trolling your favorite sites and discussion groups, you write an article and post it to your blog. Others rate it, comment on it and share it, perhaps even embed parts of it in their own content. The same goes for an open source app.

In a purely digital world, you hit a key to either print or publish your finished product. If you’re printing something like a large banner, you might end up sending the file to a print shop. For an app, you might make it available in the cloud, freeing yourself from the burdens of server administration, storage management and the like.

The maker economy works in much the same way. Once you’ve finished your design, working either alone or in collaboration within a virtual community, you hit the make button. If it’s too large or complex for your desktop 3-D printer, you send the instructions to have it built elsewhere. Here’s an example of how it works in three easy steps.

  • Design by drawing from a growing library of open source hardware and software. Arduino (arduino.cc) is one such resource. It’s both a programming language and open source hardware platform that exemplifies the 21st-century user interface mentioned earlier. A few of the many projects available for you to use, copy, modify and enhance include: an auto-lacing shoe called “Power Laces;” a biking jacket with large, highly visible LED turn signals; a tree-climbing robot; a remote-controlled lawnmower; and perhaps best of all, a chess-playing robot. Or you can create your own projects from scratch if you like.
  • Review by participating in one or more maker communities, with total membership running in the millions. The Instructables is one such community, with over 100,000 open source projects available.
  • Make by assembling and shaping the atoms. They may not be quite up to snuff with the phasers and replicators in Star Trek, but TechShop’s (techshop.ws) handheld plasma beam cutters and 3-D printers are a pretty good start down that road, which you can rent by the hour at any of their eight locations across the country. We’re talking manufacturing real products here, not just prototypes.

That’s only a small sample of what’s available. As programming languages and interfaces become more standardized, look for the internet of things to really take off. And for a truly exciting glimpse into the future, check out MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (http://cba.mit.edu), a maker-based offshoot of the Media Lab.

What all of this means

For one thing, factory jobs are coming back to the developed world. Only they’re not the same jobs. They can only be filled by knowledge workers. For many of you, especially gen-X’ers and millennials, your work up to the present has been geared toward producing information. It’s time to get ready for a massive upswing in the production of finished goods that are highly customized and massively interconnected. All loaded with knowledge, of course.

Will you be able to conjure up a list of ingredients and instructions, hit the make key, and in minutes sit down and enjoy your favorite five-star dish? Only time will tell. But if there ever was a greenfield opportunity that cuts across every industry, the maker economy is it. It’s something you’ll definitely want to be a part of.

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