Touching the Digital -- Joel Gordon, Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub


September 19, 2017

Touching the digital: IOT, 3D, Micromanufacturing and of course The Singularity

“It’s 6:30 a.m. and Lily Gordon is getting ready for school. She eats a quick breakfast, brushes her hair and teeth, grabs her backpack heavy with books and tablet and runs to the door. She is just about to leave but she remembers to do one last thing. She runs back to her room, walks to her desk, and presses start on her 3D printer.”

In the last forty years, I have experienced the rise of the digital age. I saw home computers become ubiquitous. I witnessed the birth of the internet and even had a hand in the beginnings of cellular communication. I have seen the beginnings of A.I. and I am happy to say, that I am still alive to see the birth of the age of physical-digital integration.

Free-Range Digital living

Here are just a few examples of our digital transcendance; the chipped credit card, the laptop computer and tablets, smartphones, and of course the internet of things.

The IOT has done more than any other technology (not just my opinion ;-) to aid in our transition from our earthbound existence to life among the stars. In this case via satellite.  

There you are, armed with nothing but a cell phone, you reach out from half-way across the world and turn down the air conditioner. Your hand and mind, traveling through space to save a dollar sixty-two on your electric bill. The power of IOT is still in the crawling phase. When this baby starts to run, the level of connections worldwide will be like stars in the sky. To support that level of networking, we need new tech and new technologists.

With any meaningful advance in technology, we will always see new growth in industry and workforce. IOT is an easy way to automate the dumb-stuff. Anyone can buy the equipment, off the shelf, at Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy or Amazon to create a network of convenience throughout their home. “Hey, if I can do it…” The problem is, or should I say, “The opportunity is” not that many people trust themselves to DIY a project like that. It can be a little expensive, there are security concerns, but who doesn’t want a “Smart House”? That’s why IOT is the new cable TV of the 21st Century. One tech in a van could turn your 2,000 square foot ranch style home into a space-age marvel in a day.

The Singularity is nea... Whoops, you missed it.

If you are waiting for the singularity, don’t blink. Some might make the argument (oh wait, I’m doing it) that we are living in, what could be called the singularity. I recently attended a conference in D.C. where a young man shared his contact information with a handshake, literally. He did it with an NFC chip embedded beneath the flesh of his hand. He is part of a group of bio-hackers focused on a movement called transhumanism. I’m not saying that we are controlling the world with our minds. I am saying that we are on the verge of being so wired into the world around us that effectively, we’re there!

“Everyone settle down”, no need to jump straight to Frankenstein’s monster. I see a wealth of benefits: organization, convenience, time savings. We just need to make sure that we learn to control the monster and not the other way around.  The point is this, opportunity abounds! We are spending so much time fretting over the idea of robots taking our jobs that we aren’t thinking about the fact that new jobs are on the rise.

Robot Immunizations.

Remember Lily at the top of the story? Well, that’s my 10 year old daughter. She is living and thrivingin this physical/digital world. Her species is evolving and adapting to rule or be ruled by this network of bits and atoms. I (like many parents) fear for my child. Will she have a job when she is older, or will she lose her chance at a career to a robot?

To bolster her immunity to robot rule, I am exposing her to robots a little at a time. She is developing the mindset that robots are tools. Tools that can be used to create. Her 3D printer (full disclosure… it’s mine, she just uses it more than I do) has become a way of making her world. She’s still working on being able to design everything she would like, but we are getting there.

Recently, her class needed fidget spinners (bane of my existence) so… we made them. Twenty-four of those little beasts cost me about seven dollars. That seven bucks translated to a fortune in kid barter for her. On top of that, I got to be her hero for about 8.3 hours before she got over it.

21st Century Cottage Industry

Kids still use the barter economy. Much like prisoners exchanging cigarettes for goods and services (terrible analogy I know). Kids trade pencils, candy, etc for whatever it is kids need from other kids. Imagine for a minute, that you have a factory in your bedroom that manufactures barter goods. Now imagine growing up with that knowledge.

The Maker Movement has been a powerful promoter of access to advanced manufacturing and hackable tech. Arduino microcontrollers are the brains behind many new products, including 3D printers. Raspberry Pi computers or their clones are used in a huge amount of IOT. Invention, creation, and design are no longer reserved for an elite group of the highly educated. Knowledge is available to anyone with access to the internet and the tools of creation are becoming more and more affordable.

 According to Market Watch, by the year 2020 e-commerce will earn more than 530 billion dollars. The web is an access point for entrepreneurs to develop a global customer base. Online platforms like Etsy are changing the landscape of our economy.  According to Etsy, a population base of 300,000 will have around 500 Etsy members. Let’s see the numbers… If each of those 500 makers are earning $500 a month, that works out to a quarter of a million dollars a month. That’s a 3 million dollar a year business hiding in plain sight. Now, imagine if we could grow this untapped secret market. What if we could accelerate those 500 small entrepreneurs and improve their business model?


 The economy of the 21st century will revolve around innovation, advanced manufacturing and customization. MTailor is a company that utilizes an app to measure its clients for a custom fit suit. They are blending an artisan product with a modern tool that will increase their market share.

Our current model of manufacturing in the U.S. is big… really BIG. It has been and remains, the driver of our economy. The problem with big is that it’s difficult for big to pivot. If you are navigating a winding mountain road, better to be steering a Ducatti than a Peterbilt. The winding mountain road that is the 21st century economy is begging for a Ducatti.

Big industry is trying to figure out how to utilize 3D printing technology for big manufacture but it ain’t working yet. We need a new model, we need a Ducatti. Instead of shoving a 3D printer into a big factory, build a tiny factory around that 3D printer.

Don’t beg a megacorp to come to your city, offer them millions in tax subsidies, grant them land and cross your fingers and hope they stay. Instead, build on what you’ve got. Create a new economic engine that will drive the new economy at higher RPMs and with more wind in your face.

Micromanufacturing is beginning to take hold around the world. This idea was born from the Maker Movement and it’s power lies in it’s ability to transcend market trends. Instead of building that giant factory, that makes one widget, micromanufacturing uses small intelligent tools to make a variety of products in small batches.

3D printers, CNC mills and laser cutter engravers are just a few examples of the tools Makerspaces have available for their members. These are the same tools used by industry and commonly called advanced manufacturing tools. By creating smaller facilities (and more of them) we create a model that is more immune to the ups and downs of a fast paced economy. They employ fewer people at each facility but there are more facilities. They use less raw materials, create less waste and produce goods that are customizable.

The secret to creating a robot proof career?... Learn to rule the robots.