Star Wars in the age of First-Party Manufacturing.

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

It is a pain in the ass to only have one 3D printer in the house. My family lines up to use it like they do the bathroom.

This morning Benjamin, my ten year old, started printing a dozen different little plastic heads from the Boba Fet action figure schematics he downloaded from Lucas Net. The Star Wars bounty hunter in his iconic battle armor has long been a fascination of his.

Ben is on a mission to create the perfect Boba Fet action figure, a custom mash-up of his own devising.

“Boba is a really complicated character, Dad. He unwittingly enabled the rise of the Galactic Empire! I want this action figure to be a tribute to a side of Boba Fet that Hasbro totally overlooks.”

He had narrowed down his action figure mash-up to component parts from a half a dozen Star Wars movies, fan films, animated series and books, including the latest episode: Star Wars: The Empire Divided. All that remained was the head.

“Why make one, why not make a dozen mash-ups. We have plenty of printer medium,” I offer, thinking of the bags of powder we have stored in the basement. A laser in the printer hardens the powder, called mediums, into whatever object you specify. Even objects with intricate moving parts can be printed intact and in color. The mediums are inserted into the 3D printer the way people used to add ink cartridges to obsolete 2D printers.  I take a quick mental inventory: we have the powder to make plastic, metal, stone and wood objects, but there are many more mediums available at Amazon.

An old Kodak 3D printer tagline comes to mind. For every molecule, a medium.

My son rolls his eyes. “Make them all? Dad, come on. I don’t want to hog the printer!”

That was two hours ago.  From the kitchen I can still hear the steady whir of the printer as it dutifully manufacturers Ben’s little Boba Fet heads, accurate to the micron. I imagine them all lined up before my son awaiting inspection: angry Boba head (sku #23445), sly Boba head (sku#45676), paternal Boba head (#56676), and so on.

Ben must have printed three dozen little plastic heads when my youngest, Maggie, had had enough.

“Mooooom! Ben’s being obsessive compulsive again!” she half whines, half shouts.

My wife’s response is automatic, but earnest. “Ben!” Heather shouts from somewhere in the house. “Let your sister manufacture!”

I sigh. We need to get another printer.

Our Kodak MakerBot 5000 has saved the day countless times. I still remember Ben’s eyes lighting up when he unboxed his Xbox Eternity on Christmas morning three years ago. The hot new game console had sold out everywhere and was running $3,000 on iBay.  So I downloaded the Xbox Eternity “Kit” early Christmas morning and had Ben’s shiny new game console printed, assembled and wrapped by 8am. He was kicking my ass at Halo XV by noon.

For some reason my thoughts drift to a weekend I spent with colleagues in Austin years ago (before Texas seceded from the Union).  I was working in advertising at the time for a firm called Deutsch. A bunch of us flew down to attend the SXSW conference.

It was at SXSW that I first got excited about 3D printing.

The technology wasn’t new at the time, but as the machines got smaller and more affordable, people began finding new ways to use 3D printers to make things and solve problems at home.  When the team from Deutsch won the IKEA business a year later, we were the first to incorporate 3D printing into a brand’s service proposition. Suddenly being short one #5 screw no longer stopped you from assembling your new IKEA dresser. You could just download the schematic from ikeaparts.com and print out a new screw.

Still, 3D printing remained a fringe hobby for many years. However two social dynamics were rapidly converging to ultimately move 3D printing from hobby to mainstream.

The first was the rise of the DIY movement, brought on largely by the ten year global recession. Whether it was hacking firmware, buying robot “kits”, or downloading schematics from the Wiki of Reverse Engineering, a growing number of people realized they could make better (and less expensive) cabinets, chairs and other stuff than the offshore factories.

The second factor was the growing pervasiveness of software APIs and the democratization of invention. As more and more companies participated in the “open source economy” and released their APIs, the internet turned into a giant social R&D lab. It became possible for anyone to mash-up disparate platforms to create entirely new products and services in days not months or years. Who could have guessed that PNC Bank would solve the nation’s widespread financial literacy problem by mashing up the Nike+ and NBCUtube’s API.

But it was Microsoft who would ultimately usher in the age of “first party manufacturing.”  The folks in Redmond (where SXSW moved after Austin) realized two things years before their recently merged competitor, Gaaple.

First, that people love what they make more than what they buy. So if they could be part of the process of making, say, a Windows Phone, they would love it unconditionally.

Second, that Microsoft was in the business of experiences, not manufacturing. Their value to consumers was invention and design – be it software, interface, or industrial. Just as Microsoft’s public cloud eventually freed companies from the shackles of hardware, so too did “First Party Manufacturing” free Microsoft from the slowing effects of manufacturing.

So instead of outsourcing production to “third parties” in countries like China or Texas, they would outsource to “first parties” in the garages and dens of their customer’s homes. By allowing their customers to assume responsibility for printing and assembling parts, Microsoft was able to focus on what it did best. Innovate.

Microsoft would invent, their customers would produce as needed. It was the first true partnership between brand and customer.

Microsoft’s stock soared, other companies jumped on board the new manufacturing paradigm, the Mets won the world series, and the door was firmly shut on the 10-year global recession. (Many still argue that it was PNC Bank that put an end to the global recession with their Nike Plus mash up.  Let’s call it a tie).

I can no longer hear the relentless whir of the Maker Bot 5000. I look up from my daze to see Ben with a big fat grin on his face.  He proudly displays the Boba Fet action figure that he made. To me it looks like the same old Boba Fet that I’ve known for more than fifty years. But to Ben it looks like a well-deserved tribute to a nuanced character, the unwitting progenitor of the Galactic Empire.

“Success?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Success,” He beams.

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Brands in the age of the API.

August 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

API’s are everywhere these days, and we should be rejoicing. APIs make the internet even more awesome. They are a set of rules that allow one application to interface with another.  They let applications mix and mingle and do things they couldn’t have done alone.

Flippity, for instance, is an API mashup of Ebay and Google Maps that gives Ebay more of a local Craigslist feel. Spell with Flickr generates custom messages using Flickr images.  Wheel of Lunch uses the Yahoo Local Search API to make a game of picking a place to eat.

Image created using Spell With Flickr.

We expect the Googles and Twitters of the world to have and share APIs. But what about more traditional brands? The banks, retailers and manufacturers of the world?

In some ways the whole API concept runs contrary to brand management. Brands live in a world of careful and controlled exposure. Things are either “on brand” or “off brand.”

APIs on the other hand fuel the open source economy.  An API is an invitation to play, to take something and run with it.

What would happen if a bank released an API? Would some intrepid developer use it to create a better financial management tool? Could a cable company’s API yield a better program guide?

Would a brand as tightly controlled as Coke or Nike ever be comfortable with open source brand and product development?

There are some brands that are giving it a shot. Sears is an example. With their API you can imbed their entire catalog, as well as commerce functionality, into your website or app. And MasterCard‘s API gives developers the opportunity to invent new payment applications.

API’s allow for R&D and innovation to come often and from anywhere. And as consumers grow ever more intolerant, and vocal, of inferior products and services, brands might find themselves having no choice but to adopt more of an API mindset.

What do you think?

From inside joke to Webster’s.

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I learned in college that language is constantly changing, and yet it is really hard to detect any of those changes in a lifetime.

Just like stars. They seem to be in the same place every night. But viewed from the same spot over the course of hundreds of years they do in fact change position in the sky.

But that lecture was pre-internet. And pre-4chan.

In the 90’s I was slightly more of a geek than I am now and started playing a Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO) called Ultima Online, the game that gave birth to EverQuest, Worlds of Warcraft and the rest.

If you’re familiar with these games you know that to survive and thrive you need to join what’s called a guild. Guilds are groups of players that meet in game to get stuff done – like kill dragons. They also use message boards – like 4Chan and Somethingawful.com – to stay connected while not in game.

It was in these guilds, and on these boards, that I was first exposed to some of the architects of Internet slang. The originators of LOLcats and Rickrolling and all the other Meme’s that started out as inside jokes. I was able to witness the evolution (or was it mutation) of our language. At a pace that would have my professor’s head spin.

People love to mess with language on the Internet. They do it for fun, to demonstrate their cleverness and impress their peers. It’s a form of social currency. To be in at the start of a Meme is a badge of honor. It can make you “internet famous”.

What’s amazing about the Internet, as we all know, is that there are no walls between networks of people. Something that originates in even the most tight-nit of communities can easily spill over to another network.

“Leetspeak” (or 1337speak), for instance, in which some letters are replaced with numbers, has its origins in the coder community and Bulletin Board Systems of a billion years ago. Leetspeak helped give birth to LOLcats and lolspeak. Today you are more likely to get sent a LOLcat from your grandma than someone from 4Chan. In only the Internet could two such divergent communities share a connection.

It’s this fluidity that makes the Internet the ideal medium for rapid language change.

Inside jokes aren’t the only per generators of language change, though. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s true for language as well.  Txt spk,  abbreviations and acronyms designed to deliver super short and efficient messages, came into being largely because it was a pain in the ass to type out a message on a cell phone. Who knew what TMI, OMFG, and WTF meant ten years ago? Of course it’s generally agreed that people who say LOL out loud deserve a slap on the back of the head.

Advances in technology have always played a role in the changing of language. There wasn’t a word for book until someone invented the book. What’s different now is the rate in which new technologies are adopted. “Google” is as widely used a verb as “search”, yet wasn’t around five years ago.

There has always been slang, but slang had been largely contained within groups. The Internet allows slang – Internet and otherwise – to more rapidly spill out beyond the walls of a group into the larger mainstream. We live in a world where language can change before our eyes. Personally, I find this exciting.

What do you think?

Or said another way, wH@ d0 J00 7H1nK?

Rewriting the laws of behavioral physics.

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

I just recently acquired this morsel of cougar wisdom, courtesy my wife’s fascination with The Real Housewives of New York: Money can’t buy you class.

This got me to thinking. What else can’t money buy you?

To answer this question let’s get as far away from Bridge & Tunnel logic as possible. According to an MIT study, brilliantly reframed in this RSAnimate’s video, money can’t buy you motivation. In fact, monetary rewards lead to poorer performance!

As counter intuitive as this first seems, the study is pretty compelling and, I think, extremely relevant to the agency business, an industry completely reliant on human creativity and productivity.

The study essentially calls into question everything we’ve ever learned about human behavior: if you reward, you get more of the behavior you want, and if you punish you get less of the behavior you don’t want.

So if the carrot and the stick doesn’t work, what does?

There are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction:

Autonomy.

Mastery.

Purpose.

Autonomy is our desire to be self-directed.  Interestingly, this runs counter to many corporate cultures where compliance is paramount.  The fact is, most people want to do something interesting. They don’t need to be told to, or even incentivized.

Mastery is our urge to get better at our craft. We want to be challenged, we want to improve and we want to make meaningful contributions. The RSA video points to the countless hours that programmers have donated toward the development of Linux and Apache, for no other reason than personal development and community contribution.

The last factor is purpose. Companies with a transcendent purpose are on the rise. Partly because having a purpose is the best way to attract better talent.  Who wouldn’t be excited about going to work every day for a company whose mantra is “do no evil”, or whose mission is to “put a ding in the universe.”

We spend a lot of time during our workday thinking about human behavior.  What carrots we can dangle to get people to desire our client’s products. But how much do we truly know about what motivates our talent. The lifeblood of our entire business?

What do you think?