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Napster Fabbing
Internet Delivery of Physical Products

Business Track Presentation at
O’Reilly Peer-to-Peer Conference, San Francisco
February 16, 2001
Updated October 2001

by Marshall Burns and James Howison

Sections on this page:
        Introduction
        1. What is Fabbing?
        2. Napsterization
        3. Business Models
        Update, October 2001
        Napster Fabbing—Presentation Outline

Copyright © 2000—2001, Ennex Corporation. All rights reserved.
Abstract:
     A digital fabber is a new device that translates 3-D data files into physical products. Marrying this technology to the “peer-to-peer” Internet provides a radical new way to distribute products that shifts manufacturing straight into the customer’s living room! This presentation looks at the technologies and impact of such a revolutionary capability. If record companies had a fit over Napster, wait ’til manufacturers find out you can download Rolex.fab or Ferrari.fab and make them yourself.

     Five years later, Tim O’Reilly said this was “one of the most thought-provoking talks … at our first P2P conference in 2001.”


Introduction

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     The sharing of music and movie files in peer-to-peer exchanges on the Internet has opened a Pandora’s box of controversy on how to control and profit from creative properties in the digital era. Yet music and movies are only the “tip of the iceberg” in the world of valuable intellectual property. Technologies currently under development and in limited commercial use today present the future possibility of distributing physical products on the Internet by downloading and manufacturing directly in customers’ homes and offices or in local facilities (“3-D Kinko’s”).

     Digital manufacturing is performed by a family of modern technologies that capture, transmit, and manifest 3-D digital descriptions of physical products. The central technology is the digital fabricator or “fabber,” also called a 3-D printer because it does 3-D digital output in solid material. Invented for use by engineers in “rapid prototyping” of all manner of products, from automobiles to zippers, fabbers are now also used by physicians and scientists, Hollywood prop makers, digital sculptors, and even pornographers.

     As fabbers improve in user friendliness and decline in price, their proliferation among professional and recreational computer users will provide a whole new purpose for peer-to-peer exchanges like Napster, Gnutella, and FreeNet. With fabbers instead of MP3 players and *.fab files instead of *.MP3, the inventories distributed by such networks naturally expand from information products to the real and physical: toys, clothing, furniture, sports equipment, consumer electronics, and even, one day, automobiles.

     Digital fabbing will be to designers, engineers, and manufacturers what MP3 has been to musicians and record companies. This presentation explores the business opportunities presented by this radical new technology, and related legal and economic issues.

     In the following, we present a synopsis of Napster Fabbing, as presented at The O’Reilly Conference in February 2001:


Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     A 1999 UPS TV commercial shows four scenarios of people ordering products online and taking delivery in their homes and offices via a digital “fabber” hooked up to their computers. In the commercial, we see fabbers making delivery of a pair of scuba fins (shown here), a trombone, an office water bottle with water in it, and a genuine leather football. [Courtesy UPS. Used with permission.]

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     Is this possible? Will people one day be able to go online and order whatever they want and have it just show up? We intend to show you not only that it is possible, but that it’s on its way, through a new family of technologies called digital fabbers. And we’re going to talk about how fabbers hook into the P2P Internet to create a whole new opportunity for sharing of digital data—Napster fabbing!

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”


What is Fabbing?

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     Since the dawn of history, products have been made by three basic processes. Either you start with a solid block of material and carve away the stuff you don’t want, or you stick together a bunch of pieces of the material you want, or you take a pliable material and push on opposite sides of it to give it the shape you want without either adding or removing material.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     Fabbers work by the same basic processes. The difference is that they automate those processes, taking their instructions from a digital file that describes the desired shape and structure. Fabbers combine digital data with physical material to make products. Fabbers today are limited to making simple products in simple materials, but in the not-too-distant future, fabbers will be able to make almost any product you can imagine (and maybe some you can’t imagine)! For more information on fabbers, see fabbers.com.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     Some background on Ennex Corporation. We develop technologies for digital fabbers. We have two issued patents and several more pending on a new type of fabber. We’ve build a working, proof-of-concept prototype and are working on a production model, for which we are currently seeking seed funding. In this presentation, we will be speaking about an important aspect of our technology, how it ties into the Internet. In our current pre-funding stage, revenues are primarily from consulting.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     Digital fabbers create a whole new paradigm for manufacturing, which is an iteration cycle that starts with a digital representation for a product. The data can come from a designer using CAD or from scanning an existing product. The data is transformed into physical material by a fabber. Fabbers can be connected to data anywhere in the world by the Internet. In the future, nanorecyclers will consume previously fabbed products to provide fresh raw material for fabbing new products.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     Fabbers today are used primarily for rapid prototyping, making models of new product designs for manufacturing engineers and manufacturing designers. They are also used by medical doctors for surgical planning models or custom-fitting prostheses, as well as by architects, Hollywood prop makers, and a new breed of “digital sculptors.”

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     In the future, fabbers will reach the nearly magical capabilities shown in the UPS commercial. We are still decades away from several of the capabilities shown there, but they are under development in hundreds of university, corporate, and government laboratories around the world. Today’s fabbers work at the milliscale. On the horizon are the next generation, microfabbers. Around the middle of the century we can expect to see the ultimate capabilites in the form of nanofabbers.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     We are starting to see companies tie the magical capabilites of fabbers to the Internet. ToyBuilders.com uses fabbers to make toys from customers’ own designs. MyB2O is a partnership of fabber manufacturer 3D Systems and several software companies to offer custom manufacturing services via the Web. ProtoMarket.com is a B2B exchange, connecting fabber operators with designers needing models made. InPart Solutions is one of several companies that offer libraries of 3-D data suitable for making fabable designs. And ProtoShape is the Web site of a San Francisco-area sculptor who has embraced fabbers in the production of her astounding mathematical creations.


Napsterization of Manufacturing

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     There is a community of fabber users on the Internet, called the Rapid Prototyping Mailing List, the “RP-ML.” Over the years, members of the RP-ML have occassionally engaged in trading or exchanging 3-D design files for use in fabbers. In the next several slides, we see examples of some of these exhanges in just the last few months. Clicking on these slides will take you to the actual messages in the RP-ML archives. Here we have a request for a set of human teeth,

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

      for a horse,

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

      for the Indian gods, Hanuman and Ganesh,

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

      and here, not a request, but an offer of a pair of heart files for Valentine’s Day.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     People who responded to that posting received the two “StL” files shown here.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     And finally, a request from an RP-ML member for a Roman building to help his daughter with a school project. With a reply the next day from another member who had built a Roman temple for his daughter’s school project the year before. He posted the file on his FTP site for all to enjoy. This is “Napster fabbing,” people freely sharing 3-D digital designs, peer-to-peer, online! It may not yet be as automated as the musical Napster and other P2P file sharing facilities, but it’s serving exactly the same purpose for 3-D product designs as Napster serves for music!

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     To think about the impact that this kind of file-sharing could have on the manufacturing industries, let’s look at what’s going on in music. There, the sharing of MP3 files cuts down the music industry distribution chain. The elimination of the physical record or CD as a revenue control point potentially cuts the recording company out of the loop and makes valuable musical works freely availabile. This is frightening for those companies, as well as for many artists, who have relied on the “record labels” for their income.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     We can have an analogous situation in manufacturing. Fabbers, capable of flexible production in homes and small studios, can link directly to the designer through digital files or a live hook up. This cuts out the companies we think of today as “manufacturers.” Like the record labels, manufacturers have made their money by controlling the distribution of the physical manifestations of creative designs. Just as Napster brings the musician out from behind the record label, fabbers on the Internet bring product designers out from behind the manufacturer and leave them facing the users of their designs directly. This leaves the quandry for designers of how to get paid for their work.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     As in other cases where revenues are in doubt, designers and manufacturers will have to ask themselves (as musicians and recording companies should be asking themselves today) what business they are in. In other words, what is it that people will pay them for, what will be their value proposition? Clearly, it will become harder to get paid for the physical arrangement of atoms in a product because that will be too easy for fabbers to make. Even the creative content (“intellectual property”) of a design fades in monetary value because it is too easily duplicated. The value that is left for product designers (as for musicians today) to capitalize on is their relationships with their “audiences.”

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     The quandry for recording companies today is that they are locked into a mindset in which they develop revenues from controlling intellectual property that is becoming impossible to control. In a future of widespread “Napster fabbing,” manufacturers and product designers could face a similar dilemma. But controlling intellectual property is not the only way to get paid for making music, and controlling distribution of physical objects is not the only way to get paid for designing products. Throughout history, we have seen many alternative business models for the support of creative production, such as commissioning of works and patronage (of which the 20th-century forms of corporate and government grants may evolve into the 21st-century form of distributed patronage), tipping of the busker (which is now showing up in forms like FairTunes and Amazon.com’s Honor System), the performance ransom (by which the legendary Aesop spun stories in exchange for daily commutation of his death sentence, and updated today in the form of the street performer’s protocol), even “waitering,” in which the creative person is so committed to the work that he or she supports it personally with income from a “day job” (also represented today in the open software movement).


Business Models

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     We talk above about the quandry that manufacturers and designers could find themselves in with the proliferation of fabbers on the Internet. For Ennex Corporation this is reminiscent of the California gold rush. With everyone digging in the ground looking for gold, sometimes it seemed that the only people making any money were the guys selling shovels. Ennex is in the shovel business. People will always be designing new products for other people to make and use, no matter how it turns out they get paid for it. Ennex will be there to provide the tools to render those designs into the solid material of prototypes and products. There are numerous business models for a fabber company. It can profit from the direct sale of fabbers (until development takes us to nanofabbers that will be able to reproduce themselves), possibly from distribution of design data if the copyright forces prevail, from partnering with its customers in offering fabbing services (customers being like neighborhood “3-D Kinko’s”), and from distribution of specialty materials for use in its fabbers.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     The market today demands instant gratification. In response, the peer-to-peer Internet plus audio speakers and video screens are changing the way people get their music and other information products. In the future, the peer-to-peer Internet plus fabbers and 3-D scanners will change the way people get real, physical products. The RP-ML is already demonstrating that people can and will exchange design data for fabbing. Napster fabbing is here today. All that is left is for the technology to grow in sophistication and usage.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”


Update, October 2001

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”
New slide for a presentation in October 2001 to introduce the section on Napster fabbing. The images are (top-left) a “Costa surface” sent from the US to a mathematician in Spain, (top-right) a golf ball posted in Germany in response to a request from the UK, and (bottom) the two heart files offered to all (see above).

     For the O’Reilly conference in February, we had analysed traffic on the RP-ML back as far as September 2000. Eight months later, we performed a new analysis to determine what had been happening in the exchange of StL files on the RP-ML over the course of an entire year. Here is what we found.

     From October 2000 through September 2001, there were 33 requests for design files and one offer of files. As described above, the offer was of two heart shapes for Valentine’s Day.

Figure from “Napster Fabbing”

     The requests were for the following items:

  • 10 human: Body, head (2), ankle (2), hip, rib cage, teeth, saluting hand, swinging golfer
  • 6 animals: Fish (2), horse, cat, bird, shark tooth
  • 7 vehicles: Plane (3), engine (2) , Indy car, submarine
  • 3 sports: Golf ball, golf clubs, soccer ball
  • 2 buildings: US Capitol, Roman style
  • 8 others: Globe, robot, phone, topology, coin, gods, wind-tunnel models, 3-D clip art
  • Total: 36 (Three of the 33 requests were for two items each.)

     The time distribution of the requests was:

QuarterNumber of requests
4th quarter, 20003
1st quarter, 20014
2nd quarter, 200110
3rd quarter, 200116
Total33

These data are too few to be statistically significant, but they do seem to indicate an increasing frequency of exchange of designs in the digital fabber community.

     Of the 33 requests, five got public online responses. Two responses were suggestions of people or Web sites that might have what the person was looking for. The other three actually provided the requested file, either by posting on an FTP or Web site or by private e-mail with a jpg image of the item sent to the RP-ML. It would be interesting to do further research into whether people got more assistance on their requests through private e-mails offline.

     If you found this interesting, you’ll also want to read:

and other articles published at fabbers.com.

     A fabber (short for “digital fabricator”) is a “factory in a box” that makes things automatically from digital data. Fabbers.com is under development to bring you the latest information on fabber technologies, applications, and markets.


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