Digitizing the Real World

At Red Design we think that the exponential growth of digital technologies makes the entire field a breeding ground for “disruptive technologies” that combine to change the way we view the world and conduct our lives.  Three technologies that we have had some recent experience with can be organized into one category due to their synergistic effect.  The combined effect of 3D Scanning, 3D Printing and 3D Projection makes the sum of the technologies disruptive.

All three are considered to be “gateway technologies” for digitizing information about the physical world.  The importance of such technologies as predictors of change cannot be overstated.  A recurring pattern of technological innovation has emerged in the recent past – when physical objects are digitized exciting new opportunities appear, often disrupting the old order.  This may seem to be an obscure concept at first, but becomes more apparent with a few practical examples that we take for granted but were huge paradigm shifts in their day:

On-line Payment:  The ability to make on-line payments has revolutionized commerce and banking.  It was one of the earliest practical on-line or Internet-based innovations.  Once the original ARPAnet was made broadly available as the Internet, and then popularized for everyday use through the World Wide Web protocols, on-line payments (ecommerce) exploded.  

On-line commerce would not have been possible if financial transactions had not been digitized.  An on-line transaction that relies on bartering physical goods doesn’t do us any good.  Without digitized financial transactions we’d be constrained by the speed of moving bartered goods, or moving cash. 

On-line commerce flourished early in the evolution of the Internet because specific conditions were right.  Financial transactions had already been abstracted from the exchange of goods to the exchange of legal tender representing value.  The concept of cash was then abstracted into bank accounts, checking protocols and credit cards.  Financial transactions had, in effect, already been “digitized” well before there were computers and networks to facilitate global movement.  Not that anyone knew it, but the business and banking worlds were already on the cusp of revolutionary change, just waiting for some vehicle like the Internet to make commerce instantaneous.

On-Line Entertainment:  As we have seen in our lifetimes, the recorded music industry has been completely disrupted by the Internet.  AS with on-line commerce, this occurred early in the evolution of the Internet for the same reasons – music had already been digitized.  Though digitized, or recorded, it was still constrained to physical media.  Transporting 8 tracks and then CDs/DVDs was far easier than fragile vinyl records, but still held back by the need to pass physical goods.  Once sufficient digital storage became a cheap commodity, the conventional business model of the music industry was disrupted and is still rapidly evolving and is a continuing source of litigation as the old power brokers try to hold on.

On-Line Medical Diagnostics:  In some important ways commerce and entertainment are obvious examples of digitization. Both were already using abstractions of the “real thing”.  Commerce was already using the abstraction called legal tender, and entertainment had already used earlier recording technologies to code sound and images.  Now that those new paradigms are established, some experts are predicting that the impact of the Internet is waning.  What is more likely is that we have just seen the earliest examples of change, and should learn what we can from them to prosper and improve our condition.

Medical diagnostics may be more relevant to us as an example of an area that is on the cusp of going fully digital, but still has some barriers to break down.  Most of the interactions in the doctor’s or veterinarian’s office could be handled on-line today.  One of the big challenges is getting specimens and physical samples to the doctor or lab for analysis.  They are physical objects that need to be transported – a process that adds time and money. 

In spite of advances in the user friendliness and affordability of medical devices, it is unlikely that the consumer will have fully outfitted medical labs at home.  In the case of blood analysis, for example, hematology analyzers are very complex machines that are just now becoming affordable for doctors and vets.  But using techniques currently being perfected in genome research, we should be able to break analyzers apart and sell consumer versions of blood readers to digitize samples in the privacy of our homes.  Once specimens are digitized, they can be sent anywhere for analysis.  It will become a simple matter to get a physical whenever we need or want one, 24 hours a day.  The whole medical business model will change.

Manufacturing and Construction:  We are interested in the combination of 3D Scanning, 3D Printing and 3D Projection because they permit digitization of information about physical hardware.  Though it still needs to be organized into standard methods and protocols, we expect significant reductions in costly surveys and audits by using 3D scanners to record equipment or facility “as-used” physical configurations.  These scans are then used to update 3D product models, make design modifications and conduct virtual walk throughs prior to the overhaul or manufacture. 

Further, we envision an entirely different structure for the maintenance and logistics supply chain using 3D printers to build components in the field rather than stockpiling the components in warehouses.  By sending the digitized representation of the components (as in 3D CAD models) to printers on an as-needed basis, we have created an on-line maintenance framework.  As with commerce, entertainment, medicine and many other areas of human endeavor, it will be cheaper and faster.

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