Software convergence is stimulating a hardware renaissance

We're now in an age where we have digital applications integrated with hardware sensors in all kinds of products

Q: What’s the big deal with 3-D printing, wearable tech, robots and delivery drones? Are any of these technologies applicable to my business?

A: If you have been watching the news lately you’ve probably noticed a lot of stories about Google Glass, health monitoring wristbands, the European Space Agency using 3-D printers for rocket parts, and maybe you even saw the YouTube sensation of a Dominos’ pizza-delivering drone. It doesn’t look like a passing fad. Some observers see this as nothing less than a dramatic transition period – from smartphones to more powerful and less obtrusive wearable tech, from software-dominated technology to a renaissance of hardware, from fashion and technology being separate industries to being very much connected. It’s cool again to be able to build things.

Q: I can’t see myself walking around wearing Google Glass, tilting my head and asking “Glass, find me a coffee shop”!

A: Many people couldn’t imagine using smartphones either when they started to come out. We saw what happened to BlackBerry when it figured smartphones were not going to make it big. Wearable technologies like Google Glass are starting to make breakthroughs in industrial work settings where having hands free or providing safety warnings can lead to some real benefits. According to the World Market for Wearable Technology: A Quantitative Market Assessment – 2012 report from IMS Research, “increasing demand for actionable, real-time data in a range of applications is driving strong demand for wearable technology.” By 2016, wearable technology is projected become a $6 billion industry. Other consumer- and business-friendly technologies like 3-D printing won’t be far behind.

Q: Isn’t it just hobbyists hacking away in their garages?

A: Not any more. Gartner recently reported that 3-D printer shipments will grow by 49% in 2013 and in 2014 spending will increase 62% to a market size of $669 million.

“The 3-D printer market has reached its inflection point,” Gartner research director Pete Basiliere stated in the report. “While still a nascent market, with hype outpacing technical realities, the speed of development and rise in buyer interest are pressing hardware, software and service providers to offer easier-to-use tools and materials that produce consistently high-quality results.”

The price points are dropping, and it’s conceivable that we’ll soon see 3-D printers in businesses as commonplace as the laser printer is today. Need to develop a prototype, replace a part or produce some swag? Not to fret, just go to www.shapeways.com, find and download a free design, send to your 3-D printer, grab a coffee, then come back with your product in hand.

Q: What is 3-D printing?

A: 3-D printing, more formally known as additive manufacturing, makes three-dimensional objects from a digital model. Objects are scanned in 3-D scanners and digitized or modelled with 3-D software. The digital blueprints are fed then into a 3-D printer. Materials—usually plastics but other materials like metals can be used-—are then layered sequentially following the digital design. The technology has been used for many years for product prototyping but is starting to hit the mainstream.

Q: Is it just hype or can I use a 3-D printer to manufacture some of my own parts?

A: Ordering parts can often involve waiting for production runs from suppliers and shipping that can take months. Some companies are discovering that it’s cheaper to “print” out their parts than to order.

Some studies have shown that with open-source designs, software and low-cost printing, consumers can even save money by printing many of the everyday products they currently buy from the store. A group of Michigan Technological University materials science and engineering students recently took 20 common household items on www.thingiverse.com and found it cost $18 to make with 3-D printing what would otherwise have cost $312 at the cheapest retail locations and up to $1,943 at the most expensive stores.

Q: Will hardware overtake software?

A: Hardware and software are converging. We’re now in an age where we have digital applications integrated with hardware sensors in all kinds of products. Digital design and development is now not just about making websites. The digital worker of the future may be equally likely to be building smart cities, working on big data projects and building new products that can be launched on www.kickstarter.com and www.indiegogo.com.

While we may not see Domino’s DomiCopter delivering pizza by drone in your neighborhood any time soon, an exciting new hardware sector is developing worldwide and Vancouver is emerging as an important player.

If you are interested in learning more about these emerging fields, you can join a new local meet-up group, www.meetup.com/Zen-Maker-Lab-Wearable-Tech-3-D-Printing-DIY-and-More/. •