Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

3D Printing and the Rise of Products as Service

Image via Michelangelus/

Governments at many levels have proven themselves to be instrumental in developing both a national and local software-developing community. Competitions like The Big App and Apps for Democracy have spread knowledge of government data sets as well as provided money and recognition to software-development firms. Forward-looking CIOs and CTOs realized that software—both its development and the finished product—could spur innovation and economic activity. They also realized that government could help the software-development community.

Subscribe :

In the next few articles in my emerging trends series, I’ll show how we are on the cusp of a similar era in the development of physical objects, whether simple objects or electric and/or networked devices.

Though it might sound futuristic, consider: this weekend, you could print your own circuit board . And here’s how you could print a wrench . If you to use or modify someone else’s circuits, just look here , and if you need 3D designs, here are a few. As a bonus, here’s a way to turn a $10 laser into a communications station and, related, the GSA repository on GitHub.

Keep this in mind—it’s the inchoate future coalescing around us: the scent on the breeze, and a taste of things to come. This future will include something beyond merely 3D Printing, but rather what I call “Products as a Service,” where the objects printed will be functional, made of different components, perhaps networked, and possibly open-sourced. More about this in future posts.

The Rise of Software and the Return of Hardware

A little more than a year ago, Marc Andreesen wrote a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, “ Why Software Is Eating the World ” In it, he demonstrated how software had permeated, if not subsumed so many industries—entertainment, finance, national security, photography, transportation, music—and offered some reasons why software was still ascendant, as well as some barriers the software industry faces.

There are five main reasons that software has eaten the world (and, as we’ll see that hardware may start to eat some of it back). They are:

1. Robust Ecosystem : inventors are no longer working in solitude or starting from scratch

2. Diminishing Cost : the monetary barriers to entry are coming down

3. High Return : inventors have a way to earn a lot of money and/or to make a steady living

4. Intrinsic Motivation : the incentive structure supersedes monetary compensation

5. Wide Application : The possibilities within the field of software development touch most interest areas

I'll detail these reasons in this post and continue the conversation in future posts--outlining government's role in creating the market place for "Products as a Service," and addressing issues such as advanced sharing (which covers how patents would work for open-source objects) and identity management (which is necessary to claim ownership and to have faith in the quality of designs).

Robust Ecosystem

One of the key reasons for the rise of software that Andreesen does not mention, is that the tools for creating it are practically lying all around us. Schools, libraries, and homes are all filled with computers that can create and test sophisticated software, and there are innumerable online resources to help people learn Python , Ruby on Rails , Kodu , and even Perl . Or you could visit Code Academy or Google’s Developers University Consortium .

Further, with the increasing acceptance of open source software, people who want to create their own applications don’t have to start from zero—they can adapt existing software, adding features, or slimming the application down to run on different platforms.

To date, this has stood in stark contrast to hardware. Want to make a circuit board? You’ll need a dremel press (oh, and a dremel ). And if you wanted to build a wheel, you had to literally re-invent the wheel!

However, as 3D printing moves into home offices and schools, it is not unreasonable to expect that the number and variety of objects in digital repositories will also grow. Future hobbyist-engineers will be able to adapt physical objects the way that hobbyist-coders can adapt software right now. Also, as more people create (or “code”) hardware, a more lively community will self-organize.

Diminishing Cost

At major retail chains, you can buy a laptop for less than $300. Though it won’t run graphic-intensive games, it is more than enough to get a hobbyist started coding. If even that price is too high, most DC Libraries and schools have technology labs that people can use for free. Using the internet as a means of disturbing the software is free. If you create an application that you want to sell—say, on the iTunes or Android marketplace—posting the application is free, you pay only as the application is purchased. Cost, then, for developing, disseminating, and even selling software is very low.

Conversely, the cost for creating and selling hardware has been high, but even now there are free 3D-design applications that beginners can use to create their own physical objects. And as more homes and institutions invest in 3D printers, inventors will not have to fabricate their objects, but rather post the design files to sites like Thingverse and or sell them through ShapeWays . The latter is an example of how inventors can begin to reap the monetary rewards for the efforts.

High Return

Games like Angry Birds and Draw Something demonstrate the power of the economies of scale in the mobile app marketplace. One dollar at a time, these apps manage to accrue high-six figures for their creators. Though they are by far the outliers, but the promise of a high return on the investment of time and creative energy still lures people into learning to code. Further, companies now exist for people who are more risk-averse and want to earn a steady pay check, rather than strike out on their own. (The New York Times recently ran an article on making a living instead of a big splash in mobile apps.)

What we’re going to discover, and quickly, is that kids still like to play with real-world, physical toys. In fact, two of the areas that could be easily accommodated through 3D printing—building sets and toy vehicles—are the only two that saw growth between 2010 and 2011 . In short, there is the possibility for high return in selling physical objects and physical object designs as that marketplace matures.

Intrinsic Motivation

Some people are motivated to create software for non-monetary rewards. They do it to solve complex problems, or to demonstrate mastery. They do it to preserve or exhibit independence or autonomy. Daniel Pink talks about why people behave based on intrinsic motivators, if you want more detail.

Because there were communities set up for software sharing, these kinds of motivations came into play for hobbyist-coders. Now that communities exist for trading in physical objects and their designs, the same motivators apply.

Wide Application

Whatever your interest, there is software. In fact, one of the most famous iPhone commercials sells the hardware by virtue of the range of its software. Andreesen’s article goes to lengths (literally, column inches) to show how software has transformed so many sectors of our economy and so many facets of our lives.

And there’s no reason that hardware cannot be the same. From a computer mouse shaped like a Chevy Camaro to hyper-designed coffee mugs , there are innumerable places in our lives that can be enhanced by open-sourcing physical objects and having an army of citizen-designers tinkering with them.

The Technology and Its Ecosystem

There are two changes that I see as necessary to bring “Products as a Service” into maturity, and I’ll write about them in the coming posts. The first is technological. Right now, we can print only on certain material, and none of it conductive or semiconductive. When that changes, the horizon for inventors will be truly limitless. The second is the cultural understanding of what things are and how we order, make, purchase, and distribute them—an understanding that the government can help shape.

Indeed, just as governments have opened up data, established competitions to spur the development of public-minded applications, and opened up their own operations to citizen-created software (think SeeClickFix), the government has a role to play in developing the community for open-source objects.

Ultimately, this will help government just as the apps marketplace is helping the government. Agencies will be able to order physical objects either in bulk or in small quantities that fulfill very specific needs, and may even benefit from objects that solve problems they didn’t know they had—much as some applications streamline processes that governments didn’t know they needed to address.

More on all of these in the coming posts.

Image via Michelangelus/

Gadi Ben-Yehuda is the Director of Innovation and Social Media for the IBM Center for The Business of Government. Previously, he was a Web Strategist for the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Technology Officer. He has taught creative, expository, and Web writing for more than 10 years to university students, private-sector professionals, and soldiers. He has an MFA in poetry from American University, has taught writing at Howard University, and has worked in Washington, DC, for nonprofits, lobbying organizations, Fleishman-Hillard Global Communications, and Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec