Why ship atoms when you can transmit bits?

Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder and WIRED magazine co-founder, asked this in his seminal book, Being Digital. Today, the answer is local production for local consumption with 3D printing. 

But, back in 1995, 3D printing was in its infancy and the Blockbuster video store chain employed more than 84,000 people worldwide in its 9,100 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? 

Why ship atoms when you can send bits of data to the consumer, who would then transform it into pixels on whatever screen they wanted, when they wanted? 

Today, Blockbuster is gone and streaming services proliferate. A sampling of the top streaming providers worldwide, according to App Annie

Table source: VentureBeat 

What does video or music streaming have to do with 3D printing? 

Well, for one thing, your customers are used to the idea and even expect on demand, local consumption. If you don’t ask, then they will: 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 will be consumed. 

Impossible, you think? Do not say that to the military. General Jon M. Davis, USMC, says “Capability creates the unexpected.” Davis considered a helicopter based in a remote outpost, needed for a critical mission, that requires a replacement part that is unavailable due to bad weather. The only choice has been to find another aircraft or another part (if even possible in such a remote location). Digital manufacturing techniques along with on-site use of 3D printing could solve the immediate problem.  

Or consider a ship at sea with a broken component of its propulsion system. All the captain wants is a fix that will get the ship to shore, even if multiple parts must be made before docking. A recent paper by Jose A. Lopez II, Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy,  titled Operational and Mission Readiness Impact of Additive Manufacturing Deployment in the Navy Supply Chain, found that “the effects that AM capabilities will have aboard ships will not only save the Navy money in the longterm, but will increase the operational and mission readiness of our deployers.” 

More and more the bit-to-atom conversion is taking place at remote locations, using 3D printed parts, authorized by and with files provided by the OEM. 3D printing as a service platforms are being developed and implemented by the likes of Grow, Leo Lane 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. 

Let us help you determine whether to transmit bits instead of shipping atoms.