Imagine having the ability to create nearly anything in the comfort of your own home. Or at work. Or in a classroom. Or in a hospital.

Additive manufacturing, popularly known as “3D Printing,” has the potential to revolutionize our personal lives. 3D printing is the literal opposite of the traditional manufacturing process, which essentially pares down a large piece of raw material, be it wood, metal, or plastic, into a product we can use. A 3D printer transforms a computer-aided design (CAD)—a virtual blueprint of anything from a toy apple to an entire car part—into a physical product. The printer slices the blueprint into digital cross-sections, and complex mechanisms within the machine translate those cross-sections into layers of liquid or solid material, rendering the final product.

3D printing will irrevocably change the retail industry. It’s a lofty statement, considering the limited usage of the technology today, but consider the implications of future innovations in efficiency and an expanding user base. While 3D printing’s short-run benefits, from sheer convenience to highly customized products, are obvious, its long-run benefits are more powerful. 3D printing will force retailers to innovate and to deliver more value to their customers in order to prevent the retail industry from disappearing entirely. Though there are doubts about 3D printing’s safety and viability as a practical technology, what is undeniable are the ripple effects it will cause in the retail industry and beyond.

For example, 3D printing may do to the toy industry what peer-to-peer file sharing (torrents) did to the entertainment industry. The ability to print the latest action figure for your child’s birthday present could soon replace those last minute scrambles to Toy R’Us. Though most affordable 3D printers today do not have the capacity to make complex objects with intricate parts, this may very well be a possibility in a the near future. The capabilities of such technology gives consumers enormous power and could certainly prove to be a disruptive force within the retail sector, much like torrents were in the music industry. The key distinction here is that the entertainment industry can rely on the “experience” factor to compensate for lost revenue from illegal downloads. Live experiences such as concerts, music festivals, and movie theater viewings continue to be popular with consumers.

However, if 3D printing continues to improve in detail, quality, and affordability, traditional retail outlets like Toys R’Us can offer consumers few advantages. In the near term, producers of homogeneous products such as Barbie Dolls and solid action figures may see their sales decrease as consumers gain the ability to produce these toys at home. Model building kits and toys can be easily reproduced at home, as 3D printers excel at making solid, small parts.

Programmers and designers of 3D printed objects also face similar issues software and media developers face. Pirating would certainly pose problems for developers. One way to tackle this would be to make the designs one-time-use or disposable. After the object is printed once (or perhaps ‘x’ number of times), the schematics for the object automatically delete itself. Another way developers could combat pirating would be to not allow consumers to download or install files in the traditional sense. Instead, following in the footsteps of companies like Blizzard (see Diablo 3), they should require users to stream the file or have an Internet connection in order to regulate usage of designs.

It’s about time existing hardware catch up to software, and 3D printing allows the ‘maker’ community to bring hardware into the twenty-first century. Let’s say a mechanical engineer needs a physical model of a highly specific car engine part. It is unique, intricate, and incredibly difficult to craft by traditional means. Producing the part by traditional means would require expensive molds and machinery that would not pay for itself at all. Basic microeconomic theory dictates that the marginal cost and average fixed cost of a good should decrease (although MC increases after a certain point) the more goods you produce. In this case, the engineer would need to pay an enormous cost for the first, presumably the only, item he or she produces.  In cases like these where economies of scale do not factor in, 3D printing is the superior method of production. Computer software has allowed programmers to create a virtual model of nearly anything.

What is interesting is that there are very few successful open source hardware companies. MakerBot, very much a supporter of the “do it yourself” ethos of the Maker community, was one such company. The popular 3D printing startup raised eyebrows throughout the open source community and industry when an updated model of its “Replicator” printer, released in the fall of 2012, was no longer open sourced. It was clearly a move that aimed to transform its image from hobbyist-startup to a professional company. With its hardware now safe from clones and copycats, it is likely to raise more revenue through greater sales and give investors more confidence in its business model.

Maker enthusiasts and proponents of open source hardware would argue though that MakerBot betrayed the spirit of democratic innovation that it, and arguably 3D printing, once embodied. MakerBot has essentially shifted its “competition” from an altruistic, hobbyist community to profit-driven closed-source companies, which may or may not pose a greater threat to the company. OSHW supporters believe that if through incremental improvements and iterations the community can develop a more effective, cheaper 3D printer, shouldn’t that benefit everyone?

My conjecture would be a conditional “yes.” I ultimately believe in the ingenuity of crowd-sourced thinking in certain instances. Browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox have proven the value of an enthusiastic community in furthering software development. Wikipedia has demonstrated the efficiency and accuracy of a dedicated, educated user base. However, the only way MakerBot and companies like it could have engineered such remarkable technologies was through significant financial backing, conditional of course upon profits. Thus it seems that only through a closed-source model, perhaps with certain open source characteristics with respect to printing designs, can 3D printing thrive as a technology.

Though much of our discussion has been focused on the retail sector, 3D printing’s impact need not be limited to retail. The concept of transplanting 3D printing technology into the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry is not far-fetched and would greatly improve medical treatment. Imagine if your dentist told you to download your dentures after an annual checkup. After making a mold of your teeth, scanning in into his computer, he would hand you a “prescription” with the following instructions: “Download. Print.” The convenience of 3D printing encourages prototyping and modeling, which could in turn spur medical breakthroughs. What if printers used organic matter to create cells, tissues, and possibly even entire organs? Doctors could print biotic products, such as skin tissue, tailored towards specific diseases and patients.

While 3D printing is certainly revolutionary it’s important to remind ourselves of fundamental limits of this technology. Consumers will probably never be able to “print” a Nintendo DS at home. Consumers would never print ordinary domestic items such as silverware and furniture. Manufacturers of toys can at least rejoice in the fact that 3D printers cannot and possibly will never be able to produce the complex toys with electronic parts currently sold in toy stores.

Enthusiasts tout 3D printing as the most “democratic” form of manufacturing. This sentiment is rather unfounded. Economies of scale will mean that traditional manufacturing methods will always have an edge over 3D printing in terms of cost and efficiency. It is unrealistic then to hope that someday consumers will be able to have mini-factories at home capable of creating anything at a moment’s notice.  Furthermore, unless there are revolutionary advances in technology, the quality of 3D printed objects will always be inferior to their traditional retail counterparts. The plastic resin and methods used to create these objects, while not flimsy, lack the strength and durability of more commonly used materials.

For such a versatile technology it’s conceivable how it could be used for illegal and even dangerous purposes. Indeed once the technology improves, this fear may prove to be a formidable obstacle to widespread adoption. The designs for 3D-printed guns, for example, can be found online. Such guns function exactly like normal ones and fire standard ammunition. It is even conceivable that one day, ammunition can be printed online, though it may be trickier as bullets require gunpowder. Many sensationalists and doomsayers correctly identify possible abuses of 3D printers, but these concerns do not hold up to close scrutiny.

Many overestimate the danger such abuses can pose. For one thing, ammunition production is still beyond the scope of current 3D printing technology. If owners of a printed gun don’t have access to regular ammunition, their gun is effectively useless. Furthermore, their access to ammo in the first place raises the question of why they would even go to the trouble of purchasing printer, printing materials, and schematics rather buying an actual gun. The image of a gun enthusiast or hardcore criminal going out of their way to employ a high-tech method of production to create a gun, rather than getting one off the black market, is slightly preposterous. In America in particular, if a person really wanted a gun but for some reason did not have access to gun stores, there are far more convenient and cheaper ways of getting one. Furthermore, with relatively simple “how-to” guides for homemade bombs and other weapons available online, is it really reasonable to believe that the mass adoption of 3D printing poses a significant threat?

For entrepreneurs and serial inventors, 3D printing makes prototyping a new product incredibly convenient. By simplifying the production and prototyping stage, the entire product development process and team can be streamlined. It follows then a boost in efficiency should lead to a burst of venture and entrepreneurial activity. The availability of 3D printers for common usage in hotbeds of startup activity such as college campuses will prove to be a boon for the entire industry. Thus while 3D printing is an impressive technology in its own right, its true value lies in its ability to spark other innovations and lead to the breakthroughs of tomorrow.

In August 2011 FarmPlate.com launched in Hanover, NH with the goal of creating an online sustainable foods community. Founder Kim Werner tells the Dartmouth Business Journal about the challenges and successes of starting a business to connect small town farmers, big city foodies, and everyone in between, across the US.  

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): First, could you briefly explain what FarmPlate does?

Kim Werner (KW): FarmPlate.com is an online community and resource targeting consumers, businesses and organizations who want to find and support sustainable foods businesses. Our mission, ultimately, is to spur the growth of the sustainable foods marketplace by making it fun and easy for consumers to find and enjoy real foods. We launched on August 31, 2011, with the most comprehensive database of real food enterprises nationwide. We have more than 30,000 listings of farmers, fishermen, food artisans, restaurants, markets and organizations from Maine to Pennsylvania as well as California, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. There are two primary components of the first release of the website: 1) Find real food producers as well as restaurants and markets that source sustainably— for example local cheesemakers and breweries, a sustainable fisherman who can ship line-caught products to your door, a restaurant that is committed to serving only foods with traceable sources, CSA options near you, a market where you can buy your favorite baker’s bread, and much more. 2) Explore a business’s food web to see where to buy and eat a particular producer’s products, and to see where a restaurant or market sources from.

DBJ: Why did you decide to found FarmPlate?

KM: Food has been more than a necessity throughout my life. My family traveled extensively when I was young, and our trips inevitably were focused around the foods of the cultures we were immersed in. From this, I developed a lifelong love of cooking, and in my previous professional incarnation was a cookbook editor. (I “retired” on the Joy of Cooking in the late ’90s.) When our first daughter was born, I wanted more than ever to have easy access to wholesome food fresh from the source. I spent hours googling nearby farmers’ markets, farms where we could purchase a side of beef and winter CSAs. What I found were pieces of the larger puzzle I was trying to put together. From this I decided to find a way to bring together all of this information into a single source and use technology to build a powerful and efficient community platform for sustainable foods.

DBJ: What have the biggest obstacles been in starting a sustainable foods business?

KM: There are many obstacles to starting a business in general! And if I had to choose a “space” to be in, it would be the sustainable/green business sector because one of the end-goals is to have a positive impact on society. But I would say perhaps the biggest potential obstacle, and one that can halt a start-up in its tracks, is that there is an absolute requirement to be able to do more than anyone thinks is possible with fewer human capital and financial resources than imaginable. It also requires that you are 100% prepared to give up your life as you know it. I love challenges so I have been fueled by this over the years, but it is certainly just that, challenging!

DBJ: How do you think the environment for a green business, or a sustainable food business in particular, has changed since the idea for FarmPlate was first conceived?

KW: It has vastly improved. It is an underestimate to say green businesses are a trending topic, as this is a sector that is here for the long-run. Sustainable food businesses in particular are positioned to thrive, thanks in part to the press as well as the growing environmental movement, which is spurred by a real and immediate need to re-examine how we are co-existing within our world today.

DBJ: Why did you decide to base FarmPlate in Hanover?

KM: Purely a lifestyle decision. We have deep roots in Vermont, but selected Hanover as a great place to raise a family and be surrounded by great arts, great educational opportunities and the great outdoors!

DBJ: You mentioned that FarmPlate features over 30,000 businesses    – how have you found most of the businesses listed on your site? What kind of standards must businesses meet in order to be listed in FarmPlates’s database?

KW: We have a wonderful crew across the country that screens and loads businesses into the FarmPlate database. They find the businesses by researching both online and in the field, and we collect the information from original sources, whether it’s a business’s database, Facebook page or the result of an in-person visit. We have a handbook detailing suggested criteria a business should meet in order to be listed on FarmPlate. Criteria ranges from “sources locally” to “sells direct to the consumer” to “farms the land in a sustainable manner” and so on. We err on the side of inclusion, however, as we want to help businesses expand their commitment to sustainable products, and not screen them out because they are not doing enough along these lines to warrant a listing. We’re here to help!

DBJ: How popular has the profile upgrade option been? (In which business owners pay $195/year to manage their own FarmPlate profile.) How viable is the profile upgrade option for small businesses?

KW: We have had a tremendously positive response to the upgrade option. We are offering a cost-effective way for businesses to build a website if they do not currently have a web presence (less than $4/week), and for the many businesses that do, FarmPlate is an easy, effective way to reinforce their online presence and current marketing efforts, as well as to reach a highly targeted customer base.

DBJ: How have people responded so far to what FarmPlate is doing?

KW: Frankly, we have not actively promoted our launch yet. ,We are focusing now on the great feedback we are getting from our early adopters, but we are thrilled by the organic search traffic we have begun to generate. We also have been very excited about the number of listing suggestions submitted by both businesses and consumers who want to be sure their favorite businesses are listed on FarmPlate. We look forward to 2012 when we will be more actively promoting the website.

DBJ: How do you compete with other sites offering reviews for local restaurants or sustainable food sources?

KW: Our community is highly targeted, and we see it as a destination site for foodies and sustainable food businesses trying to connect with like-minded consumers and businesses.

DBJ: What do you see as the next steps for FarmPlate?

KW: We are going to continue to build our database aggressively to deliver on our promise of a comprehensive nationwide resource. We will also be integrating more communication and social tools to further develop the community features. And we are looking forward to learning more from our audience so we can continue to grow the website according to the needs and wants of the very community we are here to serve.

 

 

Executives at the New York Times Co. flinch at the term readers and journalists have given to the paper’s digital subscription plan, which launched globally on March 28. The new “paywall” limits readers to a maximum of 20 articles a month, although this number is not as finite as it appears to be in its boxed corner in the recommendations column of the paper’s website.

Inbound links to the website are not included in the monthly count. These include links from social media services such as Twitter and Facebook and links from external websites and blogs. Readers can add another five articles per day to their count by accessing the site through search engines like Google and Bing.

These exceptions easily allow casual readers to exceed their 20-article limit without having to shell out cash for a home delivery subscription or “digital subscription”—the paper’s preferred vocabulary for a definitive change in its business model.

While home delivery subscribers will have free access to all online content, those who choose to become digital subscribers will have one of three choices. The three-tiered plan allows readers to choose a package that fits their consumption habits. Multi-tasking digital pros might opt for the All Digital Access plan, which costs $35 a month and allows users to access content from any device.

According to Martin Nisenholtz, SVP of Digital Operations at the Times, the new plan is meant to convert heavy users into subscribers. In an interview with Peter Kafka of All Things Digital, Nisenholtz remarked that he did not expect a “vast majority” of readers to encounter the paywall. His comment explains the company’s reluctance to refer to the plan as a “paywall,” which sounds like a deliberate restriction of content from casual readers who might not want to pay the full price for only a few articles a month.

But such nuances in terminology are likely irrelevant to a substantial constituent of readers who balk at another advancement in the market driven movement to monetize online content. Once traditional assumptions about the marketplace have been derailed, attempts to reinstate a market economy are likely to meet resistance. The public need only look at the music industry, which has radically shrunk with the advent of free file-sharing services, to predict the trajectory for a publishing industry pressured by the same demands of this digital “freebie” culture.

Nisenholtz’s dissection of the paper’s new business model reflects a great deal of trust in the ethical compass of the paper’s readership, and news readers in general. Research bolstered the company’s faith in readers it described as willing to pay “because [they] know [they’re] supporting a valuable institution.” Calculating revenue from such expressions of civic-mindedness might be a misstep for a publisher that has already failed once in its attempt to monetize digital content.

TimeSelect was the publisher’s first digital subscription service that charged readers to access opinion columns and archived content. It lasted from September 2005 to September 2007, when the service was suspended to increase traffic, which would generate more ad revenue. Online advertising is the primary revenue stream for publishers that provide free content. A subscription service that diminishes website traffic can potentially dampen previously lucrative gains.

If the primary goal of the New York Times Co. is to generate revenue to make up for losses in its print business, it must weigh the benefits of the additional revenue against the cost of potentially slowing traffic and operational costs of managing the subscription service.

But if the publisher’s ultimate goal is to make a sound business of its digital operations in a period of declining ad revenue, the outcome is much less certain. The plan, it its current form, does not possess the strength of a resounding success or the cracks of an unequivocal failure. Its strengths and weaknesses have other publishers on the edge of their seats as the action unfolds for this publishing giant.

Its greatest obstacle will be to compel consumers to participate in a market that has offered its goods for free for so many years. The publisher must not rely on the good faith of individuals willing to pay for valuable content, but must create the market conditions that will make this entity a business once again.