The Coming Bits and Atoms Disruption

I’ve written recently about the entrepreneurial lottery, and the long odds for many pure-software Internet/consumer/mobile projects.  For the reasons outlined, I’ve been shifting my entrepreneurial energy away from these projects.

Instead, I’ve been working on “bits and atoms”, or as I think about it:  the intersection of mechanical design/fabrication with the Internet ecosystem and Moore’s Law advances. The space includes:  CNC, digital fabrication, the “maker” culture, 3D printing, robotics, sensing, and automation.

I think we’re on the cusp (e.g. next 2-5 years) of some major disruption happening in the mechanical & electromechanical worlds, driven by the convergence of three things:

Internet-enabled collaboration.  Growing up in West Virginia, my technology sources were Popular Electronics and Digi-Key mail-order.  It took forever to build anything, and if someone else did an  interesting project, I was lucky to hear about it years after the fact.  Now, I can surf videos of cool CNC shop projects, and easily contact other makers to share project information.

It’s amazing how fast things can advance when information flows quickly and freely, and when it is easy to build on the work of others.  Consider how, in the span of only about a dozen years, we’ve transitioned from an expensive & proprietary software stack (OS, database, dev tools, etc.), to one that’s completely free, open, higher quality, and much more capable.  That only happened because of the collaboration the Internet enables.

Now, the tools & techniques pioneered by the software community are spilling into the mechanical world:  “open source” designs, version control and configuration management, and collaborative projects.  GrabCAD is one example of a company working in this area. (Disclaimer:  I am an investor).

Moore’s Law advances in computing, storage, and sensors.  The aluminum and screws in a robot arm haven’t changed much in 10 years, but the control computer sure has.  At the top end, a modern Intel/AMD processor has a lot of horsepower for real time image processing, geometry modeling, and control and planning.  At the low end, a Roomba has more CPU capacity than the first desktop computers.  The same advances are happening with storage and sensors:  1TB now costs only $60, and video sensors are getting very cheap.

Many things that were “computationally hard” 10 years ago are now possible.

Modern 3D design tools.   I recently helped a friend rebuild his computing infrastructure after a flood:  $1,200 today buys a very powerful CAD workstation.   Add some parametric 3D design software like SolidWorks, and it’s absolutely amazing what you can prototype, design, test, refine, and stress entirely at your desktop.  When you mix in collaboration:  the ability to take someone else’s model, make your own improvements, and contribute it back, things really start to take off.

I don’t know where it all leads, but it certainly feels like something’s brewing.

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