Introduction: I've seen the future (and it looks like a fork)

In 1984 or so my aunt and uncle bought me my first printer, a thermal printer for my Radio Shack Color Computer. As I remember, the printer used a four or five inch wide roll of waxed paper (think shiny toilet paper) upon which characters were essentially burned. I was thrilled with my new printer.

A few years later, probably the late 80s, I got a dot matrix printer for my Commodore 128, which essentially squirted ink on to standard paper (eureka -- no more shiny toilet paper!). Going only based on memory here, I’m guessing each page took about a minute to print and more often than not, if I printed a picture it was spotty and uneven, most often due to limited ink supplies. My laser printer came sometime around 2000. It spit out multiple pages per minute with crisp, consistent shading. Just a few years after that, had I wanted it, I could have bought a full-color printer, which could print photos with the kind of quality I had previously expected only from photo-printing services.  I’ve never even bought a color printer, because, quite honestly, I don’t even print any more.

Back to 2015: a few of months ago I was walking up Mulberry Street in New York, just north of Houston Street when I noticed a storefront with a name that was familiar: Makerbot. Makerbot, which was acquired a couple of years ago by Stratasys, manufactures affordable 3D printers (if you don’t now what 3D printing is, here's a quick explanation). I’d never seen a 3D printer in action so I decided to walk into the store. The store was lined with 3D printers in action, “printing” plastic objects of all shapes and sizes. The salesperson was watching one of the printers. When I asked him what he was printing, he responded quite simply, “a fork…for my lunch” and proceeded to tell me that it would take between 10 and 15 minutes to print.

Sure, it was only a fork. He could have brought one from home or even bought one on the way to work. But I was thrilled and inspired by the idea that this guy was able to print a fully functional plastic object more or less on his own. For all I know he designed it too. I'd heard about 3D printing before -- it simply never fully registered in my head how amazing it was until I saw my first 3D printed fork.

A few years ago I had very little idea what 3D printing was. Now I see a fork printed right before my eyes. I go to a startup event a few weeks later and I see a company called Cartesian that allows 3D printing of circuit boards. Now I’m reading about 3D printing of body organs. In the case of Markerbot, the technology is fairly course, meaning that the “resolution” of objects they’re creating is fairly low (i.e. can't be too detailed), but things are improving rapidly and we can safely assume that things are going to get better and better. I’m pretty sure the advances I saw with paper printing can be extrapolated to 3D printers in terms of both quality and consumer accessibility / affordability.  And there are so many other technologies where we can make similar predictions about inevitable improvements.

Last story: In 1986 (oh, the nostalgia), my friend Anthony got a copy of Castlevania for his Nintendo (NES) for Christmas. I was thrilled when I saw it, calling my father into his bedroom room and exclaiming something to the effect of “Dad, look at the graphics on this! How can they ever get any better?!?!”  (Hint, they did.)

 
CastleVania for THE NES:  Unimprovable Graphics  

CastleVania for THE NES: Unimprovable Graphics 

 

The point is that technologies are going to keep improving and are going to enable us to do new and exciting things we were never able to do in the past. While the improvements are sometimes predictable, the implications and the new innovations that they create are often not, at least in the long term. Put another way, I've really only focused on linear improvements of technology so far (i.e. the improvements in quality and affordability of existing technologies); it becomes really interesting when you start to consider how different technologies and ideas are combined to produce earth-shattering innovations. 

For a good part of my working career, I've had the opportunity to work with new and exciting technologies. I'm fascinated by the progress that new technologies bring. I live in a world where terms like innovation, disruption, startup, venture capital, lean methodology and many many more are thrown around casually and those I'm often in contact with often take for granted that others understand what these terms mean (and understand what their implications are). So in the postings to follow, my goal is a modest one: to help you, the reader, for whom all of those words above may be a little fuzzy, get a better understanding of the technology, innovation, and their implications in our personal and professional lives.  

On the flip side — from an admittedly selfish point of view — there are many of you out there who may know more about these topics than I do or may be able to offer pieces of insight that I haven’t seen or captured. I’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below so that I can improve what I've written and learn from you. Similarly, if you have any questions or want to reach out to me directly, contact me here: josh@jscinnovation.com.

And finally, if you happen to be walking down the street and come across anything as inspirational as a "fork," make sure you let me know.