3D Printing New Business Competition in Tohoku Japan

A few weeks ago we proposed a small batch manufacturing business to one of the struggling areas in Japan. We passed the first stage of the competition and a few days we went in to present to a panel of judges about the merits of the business plan.

The basic concept of the business plan was based on two concepts. 1) What Voodoo Manufacturing  is doing 2) The Japanese concept of giving small gifts. The small manufacturing center would be able to turn out around 5000 small plastic objects in a week. We believe this would be a valuable service to venues in Japan that could then offer these customized and branded gifts to their guests for special events. Think, a wedding hall or a sports stadium as the main clients of this business.

Doing the economic calculus of a project like this, I estimated that, on objects like these, transaction costs, on the margin, are reduced by around 300%. I don’t know if this applies to expensive products but I suspect that if it doesn’t yet, it will at some point in the future.

The other interesting thing I learned is that the sweet spot for this business is somewhere between 500-5000 parts. Oddly, doing a single object is a terrible way to make money. Which tends to indicate that a B2C business based around 3D printing has to have a radically different business model. This may also explain why a lot of B2C 3D printing businesses are performing poorly or at very least under expectations.

This whole project seems to be a baby step on a much larger path towards advanced manufacturing. Advanced manufacturing is going to look radically different than traditional economy of scale manufacturing.

Metal 3D Printing in Japanese Businesses

Metal 3D Printing is becoming a hot topic this year with a handful of new entrants like Markforged, Desktop Metal, Vader Systems, Auroralabs etc. I wanted to examine two of these today from the perspective of business 3D printing in Japan.

Desktop Metal recently made a big announcement about the launch of their first products. They have a studio version and a production version.  The price of studio printer will probably be around 150k USD, I haven’t seen the price of the production version but my guess is at least double that and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is 500k USD or more. You can read the basics on their website. The interesting topics are questions and topics are this:

  • Self Contained Metal 3D printing system
  • Rods vs. Powder
  • Speed on the Production system

3D Printing’s real strength is in distributed and localized manufacturing economics. Contrary to traditional manufacturing which benefits from large centralized fabrication that everyone calls scale.  If we think about the fundamental reasons these things work it is very simple:  raw resources, expensive logistics, capital depreciation, and cheap labor is less than raw resources, cheap logistics, capital depreciation and expensive labor. There are probably a few dozen more significant factors we could put in this but basically, cheap labor trumps cheap logistics and has for the last few hundred years. 3D printing inverts this equation, cheap logistics will beat cheap labor for manufacturing, and we are just at the start of this curve.  So why is an office/personal/studio metal 3D printer interesting? Because it makes it economically viable to localize your small parts production. If small scale production becomes localized, it will signal the general market that globalism is on its way out, investment, research, and entrepreneurship will start pouring into localizing big manufacturing. This process will take decades but it will be the predominate economic theme of the 21st century, contrary to what everyone thinks.

Going back to the first gen (small d, small m) desktop metal 3d printers; success will largely depend on how well they educate people in the applications/usefulness and how reliable the machines will be. If you look at all the successful companies in this space you will notice that all of them spend a significant amount of time on educating their end users on use cases of the machine. Although they are both synergistic; Nvidia needs great video games more than great video games need Nvidia. Reliability will be the benchmark for 3D printers, not finished quality. This is for two reasons:

  1. Part quality varies so widely from design and post processing, it is hard to create a standard.
  2. People expect anything digital to work as well as modern electronics. If a 3D printer is as reliable as a TV, no one will notice. If it is anything less, businesses will consider it immature. A high and unfair benchmark, nevertheless, the real one.

Thomas Modeen and Expanding 3D Printing

Thomas Modeen recently visited Japan on a small tour. I had the chance to hear his insightful talk about 3D Printing and product design.

 

His product design can be seen in more detail on his site. What Thomas does that is really special is transform his fundamental understanding of 3D printing into real objects. In a way, he is certainly 5 or 10 years ahead of our time.  Even his older designs like the Snakeskin are still fresh.  One interesting point Thomas brought up is how to utilize the waste product from desalination plants, that is, salt, in a way that reminds us of the natural life cycle of buildings and cities. He showed a tower made of salt blocks with a 3D printed scaffold. The idea that it would be slowly eaten away and the blocks could be replaced.

The idea of using a waste product like salt for construction is clever and reminds me of the story of charcoal’s popularization.  But, like the story of charcoal, if we want to see change or actual impact, we have to find a way to make something that is actually useful to other people at a price they can afford. Salt is already being 3D printed into structures and further research on this could help us with being strong salt structures for in situ printing in extreme environments where salt is plentiful.

Mucha, Bach, and Tradition as the Linchpin of Art

It is the good fortune of Tokyo that the Slav Epic arrived recently. Others have done more justice in writing to the beauty of Mucha’s masterpiece, I would only add that to see it in person is a totally different experience than an art book. The physical size of the paintings impart a certain monumental feeling that is appropriate  for the history of an entire peoples.

Although, all is not well at the National Art Center of Tokyo, where the exhibit is being held. Upon entering the Art Center grounds you are greeted by some tress dressed up in polka dots masquerading as Art™. Which is a bit like seeing your chef outside smoking before he cooks your meal at a fine restaurant. Interestingly, Mrs. Kusama’s work covers many of the same subjects as Alfons Mucha. The juxtaposition between the two made me recall an old recording of Glenn Gould speaking about Bach’s work.

 

 

Like, Bach, Mucha’s Slav epic was thought, or perhaps still is thought, to be outdated by many. While Mrs. Kusama enjoys significant popularity in her current time for her “straightforward” expressions, Mucha was arrested for being a reactionary. Which begs the question of who is actually more straightforward, after all, people don’t get arrested for being too opaque. Keith Haring is another good example of Japan’s obsession with art and artists that on the surface seem edgy or “straightforward” but essentially just mirrors their own obsequiousness. Also contrast the subject matter, of these two types Bach and Mucha vs. Kusama and Haring, the work of the former is almost totally devoted to the greatness of their god and countrymen and the later is effectively public masturbation, just count how many times “I” is used when describing their art.

Because of this, art that attempts to break the rules and channel modernity and fashionable sentiment chains itself to contemporary sentiment. Which, by useful definition, is not art. This also explains why it doesn’t seem to endure very long. In failing to transcend the everyday concerns, these so-called artists have failed to create anything meaningful.

Mucha’s Slav Epic seems to me to be a celebration of tradition and is therefore able to gift the viewer with a perspective above and beyond their own everyday life, that is what makes it beautiful.