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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