Tidbits in the News: 3D Printing and Crypto

Today’s version of Tidbits is  going to be a bit different. Instead of focusing on three stories to write on, I’m going to be talking about some developments with relation to things that have happened in my life. It’s going to be more like an editorial in that sense, but it’s a Tidbits entry because it very much involves the news.

Industry 4.0

Recently I’ve been doing a bunch of research into this concept called “Industry 4.0”. It’s a term that was created to describe the radical shift in the way the world works, fostered by the advances in technology in recent years. Though the change in recent years, and the changes that are yet to come, are being attributed to numerous industries, there are two that I want to focus on in particular — 3D printing, and the blockchain.

I’ve chosen those two industries, not just because they’re important, but because they’re controversial. That’s not to say other Industry 4.0 areas, like AI and IoT, aren’t controversial — they’re just as, if not more, controversial with the general public. But, based on my interactions with people involved with these technologies on a day to day basis, 3D printing and the blockchain were more contentious than AI or IoT ever were.

Controversy

Whenever there’s a new technology that’s being introduced, there’s bound to be controversy. There will always be people who will resist change, perhaps even fear it, and it’s up to the developers to quell those doubts. The easiest way of going about this is to perform a tech demo.

IoT was the first of the Industry 4.0 technologies to really catch on, from what I can remember. It was a really easy sell, too — the machines you have in your house can now be controlled by your phone over the internet. Of course, today, things are a bit more nuanced, but the underlying value proposition has not changed. IoT, fundamentally, is about getting things connected to the internet to allow a more nuanced interaction between man and machine.

People weren’t so opposed to implementing this technology because they were already accustomed to controlling things wirelessly. Moreover, the internet, as we know it, was already decades old by that time, so animosity towards it was almost non existent. What’s more, the first IoT proof of concept, if memory serves me right, was a thermostat, with the value proposition of being able to control your thermostat while you were out and about. This was something people could relate to, so the value proposition was valid. Moreover, it was a simple proof of concept that worked without a hitch, as expected.

AI was a bit different. It, too, was an easy value proposition — computers will automatically do things that humans used to do. Things like big data analytics, natural language processing, even medical diagnoses — computers will do that. But, unlike IoT, the thing that helped lower the barrier wasn’t the progress of technology, but science fiction. For years, we’ve been exposed to fictitious worlds of AI powered personal assistants (like JARVIS from Iron Man), and malicious super computers (like Skynet and HAL9000). The question was less, “can computers do that?” and more, “when can computers do that?”

The proof of concept for AI was rather audacious, and thoroughly inscribed AI in the minds of ordinary people. It started with IBM’s Deep Blue defeating Kasparov in chess. Then it was IBM’s Watson besting the competition on Jeopardy. And then, there was Deep Mind’s AlphaGo defeating Lee Sae Dol in Go, something even most AI experts thought impossible. These huge PR events got people to recognize that AI was not a distant dream. It was very much here and now.

The problem with 3D printing and blockchain technologies is that the psychological barriers preventing public adoption are still relatively high. Moreover, proofs of concepts have been difficult for people to relate to. 3D printing projects haven’t really captured the imagination just yet, and blockchain’s time in the limelight seems to be dominated by talk of crypto and its detriment to the world.

But there are signs that this may be changing.

Inflection Point?

I hate that word. Inflection point. If you go to Silicon Valley, the way they use the term is nothing like the mathematical definition of the term. But I digress. The way they use the term in Silicon Valley is to describe a point at which traction for a startup begins accelerating. If your company had 100 DAU, but then, on May 17th, 20XX, the number began to jump to 500, 900, 1500, and kept on accelerating into the millions thereafter, May 17th would be your inflection point. Whatever you did up to that point — everything you changed to optimize your service — all that would be the inflection point.

And I’m thinking, these recent developments may be inflection points for 3D printing and blockchain technologies.

3D Printing

I once had the opportunity to perform due diligence on a precision plastics manufacturer back in late 2017. It was a leveraged buyout, and the due diligence was to see the target company, and the future management team. One of the questions I asked the management team was how they quantified the risk of competition from 3D printing.

Their answer: there’s no risk. 3D printing is fundamentally too imprecise, with high margins of errors that they’ll never be able to create precision instruments like the target company.

I walked away from that meeting sooner than you can say good bye.

But, on that day, they did have a point. 3D printing showed it can create things like guns (regardless of their controversy), but they haven’t demonstrated that they can create anything smaller than that, nor that they can create things that demand a high level of precision. But I, personally, believed the people working on the technology would continue to improve their product until 3D printing surpassed the level of precision of traditional processes.

This week, they may have just proven me right.

This is a 3D printed, 3-axis tourbillon.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with what a tourbillon is, it’s essentially the balance wheel in a mechanical watch on steroids. The aim is to keep the balance wheel rotating, such that the effects of gravity on it are minimized to improve standard deviations in time keeping. It’s a very complex system that only a handful of watch movement manufacturers are able to create. Now we’ve witnessed a 3D printed version of this engineering marvel.

Sure, the scale is far larger than anything that’s feasible for a wrist watch, but even at this scale, the parts need to be incredibly precise for the complication to work. That’s what I’m pointing out here — this proves that 3D printing is ready for what’s next. It’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.

Blockchain

Now blockchain has a more interesting problem on its heels. It’s much less about blockchain being an unproven tech. It’s more about what the value of cryptocurrencies are in the overarching picture.

They compare the crypto mania of late 2017 to the tulip mania that happened in the Netherlands back in the 1600’s. Many experts compare the tulips to cryptocurrencies, and the buds from which the flowers bloom to the blockchain. This was the narrative when the world was going crazy for cryptocurrencies, with Bitcoin prices hitting record highs.

Except, the analogy falls apart rather quickly when you step aside and analyze it a bit.

Tulip buds can serve no other purpose than to create tulip flowers. The blockchain, on the other hand, has many other applications, with cryptocurrencies being one of them. It’s a difficult thing to rectify in a couple of sentences (I know, it took me a while to understand the whole thing as well), but the gist of it all is this — cryptocurrencies and blockchains are inseparable. One cannot survive without the other.

There have been many VCs and crypto exchanges that have been working to rectify public perception of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain. Now, it seems, traditional players are catching on.

Sparklabs, a VC based out of the US and Korea, has introduced a security token with the aim of fundraising for its various accelerator programs. Holders of the security tokens will be like LPs in traditional funds, except there will be no limitation on the size of the investment, except for the value of the token.

What’s more is that there’s talk of the parent company of the NYSE developing its own Bitcoin trading platform, focusing on swap contracts rather than the already existent futures contracts. Futures and swaps are interesting financial instruments that are worth an article in and of themselves, but all we have to know is that this move is significant in that it further recognizes that cryptocurrencies hold a legitimate place in the world’s economy.

These moves, coupled with more that are flying even further below the radar, are significant, independent of the original intent of Sparklabs or the NYSE. They’re significant because it’s associating an established name with the mysterious world of cryptocurrencies, and, thereby, blockchain technologies. It’ll help in improving the technology’s standing in the eyes of the general public.

What’s Next?

With the increase in interest in Industry 4.0 technologies, there’s bound to be interesting developments in the coming days, months, years. But there’s a point at which everything accelerates. That’s what the VCs call an inflection point. If the events that I’ve described do, indeed turn out to be inflection points in these industries, we can expect things to quickly take hold as the new status quo.

If, on the other hand, these events fail to capture the imagination of the general public, then we may have to wait longer still, but rest assured, change is coming. It’s only a matter of time.

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