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T.J. Kneale: 2015 — The Rise of Democratization

While Merriam-Webster tells us that “culture” was the most popular word of 2014, I predict that “democratization” will become ubiquitous in 2015.


Perhaps not everyone will use the actual word democratization, but democratization — “making something available for all people” — is a trend that will only grow in 2015 and beyond. The increasing ease of use and lowering of prices for advanced design and manufacturing tools bring feats hitherto relegated to the realm of superpowers into the grasp of individuals and small groups.

Witness Moon Express, a small company of about 50 people under contract with NASA to execute a soft landing on the moon by the end of 2015 in competition for Google’s Lunar X Prize. Whether or not Moon Express is ultimately successful, the concept of a small Silicon Valley startup literally reaching for the moon was inconceivable fewer than 50 years ago, when man’s first step on the moon was a national endeavor requiring a decade of advanced research and a hundred billion dollars of superpower funding.

In my position on the Strategic Innovation Team at the 3D design company Autodesk, I’ve been fortunate to closely observe the democratization of design and manufacturing tools and some of the amazing applications our customers have imagined, designed and created. Democratization of technology holds the promise of creating a better world in the coming year and beyond.

Democratization of Reality Computing

Reality computing is new to the techno-lexicon, but it is becoming increasingly prevalent. In broad terms, it can be defined as the conversion of atoms to bits and the subsequent manipulation of those bits. For this article, we are speaking specifically of the atom to bit conversion, known as reality capture, which now occurs in three dimensions — or more. While laser scanners have been in use for this purpose for some time, they carry price tags in the tens of thousands of dollars and have strict tolerances for allowable movement during use, as well as proper setup for target-based registration.

With new apps and software like Autodesk’s 123D Catch, ReCap 360 and Memento, individuals have free access to cloud computing tools that require nothing more advanced than a cellphone camera to generate high-resolution 3D models of subjects as commonplace as household objects or as advanced as as-built industrial infrastructure. Once ensconced in the digital realm, these models can be manipulated at will with the ease provided by these new digital design tools. This sets us up for our next trend — the democratization of design.

Democratization of Design

In the early 1960s, the first experiments in computer-aided design (CAD) enabled the transition of design efforts from the drafting table to the digital world. With the advent and growth of the personal computer in the early 1980s, more people were afforded the opportunity to use this powerful new toolset, though it was often relegated it to the realms of professional designers and architects due to its complexity.

Now, as we enter the midpoint of the 2010s, digital design software has become so easy to use that even students and novices are able to manipulate models of items as wonderfully complex as bacterial DNA. Free access to tools like TinkerCad and 123D Design allows newcomers to ease into the waters of 3D design, while free access for educators, students and startups to powerful tools like Inventor and Fusion 360 allow companies like Moon Express to design, simulate and digitally prototype complex products for use on other worlds.

Democratization of Manufacturing

The increasing sophistication and lowering cost of digital and distributed manufacturing — like 3D printing — and the shift of advanced manufacturing tools from an ownership to an access model — like TechShop — allow nearly anyone with the inclination to manufacture just about anything he or she can conceive. Planet Labs, a startup manufacturer of low-cost miniature satellites assembled largely from off-the-shelf components, is a prime example — building their first satellite, literally, in a garage.  Because complexity is free in the world of additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing), many of the limitations of traditional manufacturing techniques — and the resulting requirement for decades of arduous education to understand them — are put aside, so individuals can rapidly prototype their way through difficulties using a tinkering approach. With the announcement of the first open-source 3D printer and operating system in Autodesk’s Ember/Spark combination, individuals and small groups can now be actively involved in advancing the state of the art of additive manufacturing.

Now that we can easily translate from the physical to the digital realm; manipulate, simulate, and prototype in that realm; and easily transmit those bits back into atoms; we can finally hook the cart of the physical world to the horse of the exponential growth of digital technology in line with Moore’s Law. The fact that individuals and small groups have access to these technologies for little to no cost, and no longer require advanced degrees to use them, connects the digital growth curve to the similarly exponential innovation potential of the population at large. Connecting the cloud to the crowd in this way shows the real promise of the democratization of these technologies.

In the first half of this decade, we’ve already seen the first test flight of the Moon Express MX-1 Lunar Lander, Planet Labs placing garage-built satellites on orbit at an affordable cost, and students engineering and manufacturing designer bacteria that smell like mint. Imagine what the twin exponential growth curves of the crowd and the cloud hold for the second half. While Mr. Webster may come to a different conclusion at the end of 2015, “democratization” is my word for the year.

Top GIF: Video courtesy of Autodesk.

T.J. Kneale is an active duty U.S. Navy Commander serving as a Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellow on the Strategic Innovation Team at Autodesk, Inc. The views expressed herein are solely the author’s and are not necessarily representative of those of Autodesk or the U.S. government.

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