The next industrial revolution: SXSW embraces the physical

The next industrial revolution: SXSW embraces the physical

An amazing thing happened at South by Southwest (SXSW) today. Whereas in the past the overwhelming focus has been on the consumer world (SXSW is where both Twitter and Foursquare first broke out) the event seems to be changing focus with enterprise and the physical world starting to garner attention.

This afternoon I headed down to check out a session all about new approaches for enterprise applications but, in an occurrence that is almost unheard of, the session was full to capacity and there was a long line of people waiting to get in. There’s also been a bit of interest in a panel I’m taking part in tomorrow that looks at how technology can be an enabler for traditionally non-techy markets.

And in perhaps the biggest sign that this event, which has always had a love affair with anything social, is looking to a new way of doing things, the opening keynote this morning was by Bre Pettis, the founder of MakerBot, a company that made three dimensional printing accessible to the mass market. Pettis talked about what he sees as the next industrial revolution – the ability of citizen creators to tinker and to make things.

But as Pettis explained – it’s not just people wanting to play who can utilise this sort of technology. He told the story of a small company that is making customised prosthetics for children – whereas traditional prosthetic approaches are very expensive and therefore aren’t viable in many cases where the recipient is still growing, the cheap nature of 3D printing means that prosthetics can be created at very little cost, and simply reproduced at a larger scale when the recipient grows.

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Pettis also took the opportunity to announce the creation of the MakerBot digitizer, a pretty amazing little machine made from a laser and a web camera. The digitizer allows people to, cheaply and quickly, take a physical object, scan it and use it in a digital format. Obviously this is useful where there is a need to replicate items, but even more than that, it allows an entire new realm of exploration – items can be digitized and manipulated. Think of it like Open Source for the physical world – in the same way that a developer can take an Open Source project and change it to suit her particular requirements. So too can a designer take a physical item, digitize it, manipulate it digitally and then produce it on a MakerBot printer.

Of course all of this opens up a huge realm for possible copyright issues – as other have commented on, there’s an army of IP lawyers just waiting to get their teeth into some meaty copyright infringement cases.

That said, the release of the digitizer, alongside the already popular MakerBot, is showing just how revolutionary democratized manufacturing can be. Imagine school rooms set up with Digitizers, MakerBots and the software to manipulate digital files – students will, in quick order, be enabled to create at a level never seen before.

The future is much more than social networks and the latest location apps. I’m looking forward to more of the conversations moving on from social networking and the latest location app into some that is more substantive – literally and figuratively.

Ben Kepes is an analyst, an entrepreneur, a commentator and a business adviser. He blogs at diversity.net.nz