Ready To Download Your Next Pair Of Shoes? How 3D Printing Is Turning Bits Into Atoms

Nicholas Carlson

makerbot-replicator-2Remember how, in “Star Trek,” Captain Picard could tell a computer “tea, Earl Grey, hot” and, voilà, out of thin air, a hot, Early Grey tea would appear on a tray?

That computer was called a Replicator.  What it did was use software made of bits to create objects made of atoms.

Believe it or not, replicators of a sort have already existed outside of science fiction for years.

The truth is, we’ve been turning atoms into bits and bits into atoms for more than a decade now. Music used to be recorded by carving physical groves into records. These grooves vibrated a needle tunefully, and a funnel amplified the volume. Now, that atoms-oriented process has been replaced by software — the creation and reading of bits.

More recently, we’ve seen the advent of gadgets that are almost exactly like the Replicators in Star Trek. They’re called 3D printers. There are lots of different types of 3D printers, but one company, MakerBot, is actually selling them to consumers.

Their brand name?

The Replicator.

They aren’t making hot tea yet. But you can download all kinds of objects from the Internet — including toys, tools, and art — and use 3D printers to fabricate them in your home.

Someday you might be able to download your next pair of shoes from the Internet, and use a 3D printer to make them yourself. Someday, most of the physical objects you own might come together this way.

Obviously, that potential has huge consumer and business applications. Mike Maples, an influential early stage startup investor in Silicon Valley, spends a lot of time thinking about how them — and how technology is turning “atoms into bits” and back again.

Here’s a lightly-edited interview with Maples on the topic.

The idea that technology will soon turn “atoms into bits” is one I first heard from you. Could you explain what you mean?

“Atoms to bits” describes a tendency of products to transform from physical and constrained to virtual and unconstrained.  The most obvious early example was music.  It used to exist as a physical good (LP records), but over time transitioned into a bit-based product when it became possible to capture music in a file and copy and distribute it effortlessly.

We believe that the transition from atoms to bits will occur in a wider range of product categories over the next decade, enabled by new technology breakthroughs like 3D printing.

This feels like something out of “The Jetsons” or “Star Trek.” How did technology have to progress to the point where it’s realistic to talk about all this?

The technology business is magical — it guarantees us a doubling of computing performance every 18-24 months.  This exponential curve makes the power of our technology increase a million-fold every generation.  For instance, once you could turn a song into bits, it was only a matter of a few years before you could do the same with a DVD movie, Mike Maplesand more recently a Blu-Ray movie, or a home movie shot in 1080p from your iPhone.

But the bigger idea is that exponential advances in the next generation will allow an entire range of products to transform from atoms to bits — products that most people do not imagine today.  Various industries will be impacted by this, not just the media and entertainment businesses.

When do you think we’ll start seeing consumer application of this technology?

Applications are already widespread in media and entertainment, but they will spread.

When I was spending time at Singularity University, Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, gave a very interesting talk about 3D printing.  He described how people are already starting to develop technologies to print in rubber, plastic, and metal.

He gave an example of 3D printing applied to sneakers.  Today, Nike makes more than 500 million pairs of shoes a year.  Imagine if, instead of them being made in China, they were instead printed on a 3D printer?  The process of purchasing a shoe would be like buying an “app” that contained a 3D CAD file for the shoe which could be printed directly.  Would this printer exist in a shoe store, a future Kinko’s, or even in someone’s living room?  That’s hard to guess.

Further out into the future, I have seen teams at Stanford who are working on the ability to print a human organ, which would be transformational for even more obvious reasons.

Turning objects into software raises serious piracy questions, doesn’t it?

Turning objects into software raises a lot of very interesting questions about industry disruption.  Piracy is an issue, but there are even more fundamental structural implications.

For example, if Nike develops the ability to “print” a pair of shoes, what does this mean for manufacturing?  Could manufacturing be re-defined and migrate back to the U.S.?

And, as you point out, it raises big concerns about piracy.  It’s very counter-intuitive to think that a pair of shoes might one day be stolen from Bit Torrent to be printed illegally in a consumer’s home while nobody is watching.

When Carl was discussing 3D printing, a movie executive was in the audience and he joked “Finally! Someone other than the music and movie industries are going to get ripped off!  We’ll see if people take piracy seriously then!”

But overall it seems like a very positive, empowering trend.  In the case of music, people forget that the industry used to have to build factories to mass-produce music, with all of their attendant physical costs as well as the externality costs of pollution and waste.  In the shoe example, the product could be recycled and re-printed, which could change the carbon footprint of shoe manufacturing along with the core economics of making and distributing shoes.

When Carl gave his talk on 3D printing, he said that technology is like the [parking lot exit] signs that say “Don’t back up.  Severe tire damage.”  That reminds me of the future opportunities we are likely to see.  The task is to keep moving forward with a proactive sense of the possible.  The option to move backwards is not really available to us, regardless of who might feel threatened or try to stop it.

What are some exciting consumer applications you envision?

Every physical thing that is designed and built today could be a target.  We discussed media and shoes, but people in academia are also experimenting with printing buildings — the opportunities are quite broad.

How are you investing around this opportunity?

Our basic metaphor is that physical products are tending to transition from “ice” to “liquid” to “vapor.”

Taking music as an example, the “ice” phase was when all of the music had to be purchased as a physical LP.  The “liquid” phase started when recordable media made it possible to make analog recordings of music on audiotapes.  The “gas” phase occurred when it became practical to make high-quality digital copies of music.  This is when music became an uncontrollable virtual good that forced the music industry to re-think its entire business model.

We are looking for enabling technologies that allow products to change their “states” and when we find these technologies, we try to ask which product categories are likely to be affected first.  But in terms of the specific areas, we are keeping that a secret for now!

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The implications of collaboration in the networked economy will continue to shape every aspect of the world we live in today and the changing world we will live in tomorrow. Get involved in the conversations on The Future of Business and read, watch and learn about the networked economy.


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13 Scary Statistics On Employee Engagement [INFOGRAPHIC]

Jacob Shriar

There is a serious problem with the way we work.

Most employees are disengaged and not passionate about the work they do. This is costing companies a ton of money in lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover. It’s also harmful to employees, because they’re more stressed out than ever.

The thing that bothers me the most about it, is that it’s all so easy to fix. I can’t figure out why managers aren’t more proactive about this. Besides the human element of caring for our employees, it’s costing them money, so they should care more about fixing it. Something as simple as saying thank you to your employees can have a huge effect on their engagement, not to mention it’s good for your level of happiness.

The infographic that we put together has some pretty shocking statistics in it, but there are a few common themes. Employees feel overworked, overwhelmed, and they don’t like what they do. Companies are noticing it, with 75% of them saying they can’t attract the right talent, and 83% of them feeling that their employer brand isn’t compelling. Companies that want to fix this need to be smart, and patient. This doesn’t happen overnight, but like I mentioned, it’s easy to do. Being patient might be the hardest thing for companies, and I understand how frustrating it can be not to see results right away, but it’s important that you invest in this, because the ROI of employee engagement is huge.

Here are 4 simple (and free) things you can do to get that passion back into employees. These are all based on research from Deloitte.

1.  Encourage side projects

Employees feel overworked and underappreciated, so as leaders, we need to stop overloading them to the point where they can’t handle the workload. Let them explore their own passions and interests, and work on side projects. Ideally, they wouldn’t have to be related to the company, but if you’re worried about them wasting time, you can set that boundary that it has to be related to the company. What this does, is give them autonomy, and let them improve on their skills (mastery), two of the biggest motivators for work.

Employees feel overworked and underappreciated, so as leaders, we need to stop overloading them to the point where they can’t handle the workload.

2.  Encourage workers to engage with customers

At Wistia, a video hosting company, they make everyone in the company do customer support during their onboarding, and they often rotate people into customer support. When I asked Chris, their CEO, why they do this, he mentioned to me that it’s so every single person in the company understands how their customers are using their product. What pains they’re having, what they like about it, it gets everyone on the same page. It keeps all employees in the loop, and can really motivate you to work when you’re talking directly with customers.

3.  Encourage workers to work cross-functionally

Both Apple and Google have created common areas in their offices, specifically and strategically located, so that different workers that don’t normally interact with each other can have a chance to chat.

This isn’t a coincidence. It’s meant for that collaborative learning, and building those relationships with your colleagues.

4.  Encourage networking in their industry

This is similar to number 2 on the list, but it’s important for employees to grow and learn more about what they do. It helps them build that passion for their industry. It’s important to go to networking events, and encourage your employees to participate in these things. Websites like Eventbrite or Meetup have lots of great resources, and most of the events on there are free.

13 Disturbing Facts About Employee Engagement [Infographic]

What do you do to increase employee engagement? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Did you like today’s post? If so you’ll love our frequent newsletter! Sign up here and receive The Switch and Shift Change Playbook, by Shawn Murphy, as our thanks to you!

This infographic was crafted with love by Officevibe, the employee survey tool that helps companies improve their corporate wellness, and have a better organizational culture.


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Supply Chain Fraud: The Threat from Within

Lindsey LaManna

Supply chain fraud – whether perpetrated by suppliers, subcontractors, employees, or some combination of those – can take many forms. Among the most common are:

  • Falsified labor
  • Inflated bills or expense accounts
  • Bribery and corruption
  • Phantom vendor accounts or invoices
  • Bid rigging
  • Grey markets (counterfeit or knockoff products)
  • Failure to meet specifications (resulting in substandard or dangerous goods)
  • Unauthorized disbursements

LSAP_Smart Supply Chains_graphics_briefook inside

Perhaps the most damaging sources of supply chain fraud are internal, especially collusion between an employee and a supplier. Such partnerships help fraudsters evade independent checks and other controls, enabling them to steal larger amounts. The median loss from fraud committed
by a single thief was US$80,000, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE).

Costs increase along with the number of perpetrators involved. Fraud involving two thieves had a median loss of US$200,000; fraud involving three people had a median loss of US$355,000; and fraud with four or more had a median loss of more than US$500,000, according to ACFE.

Build a culture to fight fraud

The most effective method to fight internal supply chain theft is to create a culture dedicated to fighting it. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Make sure the board and C-level executives understand the critical nature of the supply chain and the risk of fraud throughout the procurement lifecycle.
  • Market the organization’s supply chain policies internally and among contractors.
  • Institute policies that prohibit conflicts of interest, and cross-check employee and supplier data to uncover potential conflicts.
  • Define the rules for accepting gifts from suppliers and insist that all gifts be documented.
  • Require two employees to sign off on any proposed changes to suppliers.
  • Watch for staff defections to suppliers, and pay close attention to any supplier that has recently poached an employee.

About Lindsey LaManna

Lindsey LaManna is Social and Reporting Manager for the Digitalist Magazine by SAP Global Marketing. Follow @LindseyLaManna on Twitter, on LinkedIn or Google+.


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Transform Or Die: What Will You Do In The Digital Economy?

Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

By now, most executives are keenly aware that the digital economy can be either an opportunity or a threat. The question is not whether they should engage their business in it. Rather, it’s how to unleash the power of digital technology while maintaining a healthy business, leveraging existing IT investments, and innovating without disrupting themselves.

Yet most of those executives are shying away Businesspeople in a Meeting --- Image by © Monalyn Gracia/Corbisfrom such a challenge. According to a recent study by MIT Sloan and Capgemini, only 15% of CEOs are executing a digital strategy, even though 90% agree that the digital economy will impact their industry. As these businesses ignore this reality, early adopters of digital transformation are achieving 9% higher revenue creation, 26% greater impact on profitability, and 12% more market valuation.

Why aren’t more leaders willing to transform their business and seize the opportunity of our hyperconnected world? The answer is as simple as human nature. Innately, humans are uncomfortable with the notion of change. We even find comfort in stability and predictability. Unfortunately, the digital economy is none of these – it’s fast and always evolving.

Digital transformation is no longer an option – it’s the imperative

At this moment, we are witnessing an explosion of connections, data, and innovations. And even though this hyperconnectivity has changed the game, customers are radically changing the rules – demanding simple, seamless, and personalized experiences at every touch point.

Billions of people are using social and digital communities to provide services, share insights, and engage in commerce. All the while, new channels for engaging with customers are created, and new ways for making better use of resources are emerging. It is these communities that allow companies to not only give customers what they want, but also align efforts across the business network to maximize value potential.

To seize the opportunities ahead, businesses must go beyond sensors, Big Data, analytics, and social media. More important, they need to reinvent themselves in a manner that is compatible with an increasingly digital world and its inhabitants (a.k.a. your consumers).

Here are a few companies that understand the importance of digital transformation – and are reaping the rewards:

  1. Under Armour:  No longer is this widely popular athletic brand just selling shoes and apparel. They are connecting 38 million people on a digital platform. By focusing on this services side of the business, Under Armour is poised to become a lifestyle advisor and health consultant, using his product side as the enabler.
  1. Port of Hamburg: Europe’s second-largest port is keeping carrier trucks and ships productive around the clock. By fusing facility, weather, and traffic conditions with vehicle availability and shipment schedules, the Port increased container handling capacity by 178% without expanding its physical space.
  1. Haier Asia: This top-ranking multinational consumer electronics and home appliances company decided to disrupt itself before someone else did. The company used a two-prong approach to digital transformation to create a service-based model to seize the potential of changing consumer behaviors and accelerate product development. 
  1. Uber: This startup darling is more than just a taxi service. It is transforming how urban logistics operates through a technology trifecta: Big Data, cloud, and mobile.
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO): Even nonprofits can benefit from digital transformation. ASCO is transforming care for cancer patients worldwide by consolidating patient information with its CancerLinQ. By unlocking knowledge and value from the 97% of cancer patients who are not involved in clinical trials, healthcare providers can drive better, more data-driven decision making and outcomes.

It’s time to take action 

During the SAP Executive Technology Summit at SAP TechEd on October 19–20, an elite group of CIOs, CTOs, and corporate executives will gather to discuss the challenges of digital transformation and how they can solve them. With the freedom of open, candid, and interactive discussions led by SAP Board Members and senior technology leadership, delegates will exchange ideas on how to get on the right path while leveraging their existing technology infrastructure.

Stay tuned for exclusive insights from this invitation-only event in our next blog!
Scott Feldman is Global Head of the SAP HANA Customer Community at SAP. Connect with him on Twitter @sfeldman0.

Puneet Suppal drives Solution Strategy and Adoption (Customer Innovation & IoT) at SAP Labs. Connect with him on Twitter @puneetsuppal.



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The Importance Of Leadership On Employee Engagement [INFOGRAPHIC]

Charmian Solter

Here at Switch & Shift we strive to illuminate effective leadership practices. We pride ourselves on creating cutting-edge solutions for employee engagement, communication, and creating company culture, to name a few.

Why are these topics so important? Well, according to The Importance of Employee Engagement infographic by NBRI, courtesy of Brandon Gaille, if leadership doesn’t step up and affect change and build trust and engagement, their employees will be busy doing anything but work while on the job! This infographic says it all.


For more on developing more engaged, loyal, and productive workers, see How Empowering Employees Creates a More Engaged Workforce.


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