I have been going on for a while about a broad trend I see that is occurring simultaneously with Globalization, but while this trend is occurring concurrently with Globalization, I think of it as acting orthogonally rather than in parallel. I’ll call it “Democratization,” primarily for the purpose of giving it a name for easy reference. I know the term has been used before, and probably far too often and gratuitously, but it works for me so I’m going to use it. Maybe I can even redeem it, or at least change its inevitable slide to the graveyard of marketing mediocrity. I hope to do that by objectively using it to describe the trend I am talking about rather than as a superlative for a specific vendor’s strategy.
Typically, when we think of globalization we think of the outsourcing of manufacturing or Information Technology to emerging economies like India and China. Thomas Friedman calls this “flattening” of the globe in his painfully long book “The World Is Flat.” In addition to conveying some useful information, the book’s length also had the positive result of keeping him busy and off “Meet the Press” and the Tavis Smiley show for a while. Seriously, while I have heard Tavis on the radio before, I have only seen part of his TV show once, while flipping channels late at night when I couldn’t fall asleep, and Friedman was on, demonizing his usual cast of villains. Politics aside, Friedman’s notion of flattening is related to democratization. While he is primarily focused on the idea of the playing field leveling between countries and economies, a number of the “flatteners” he describes are drivers of democratization. Flatteners such as Netscape, which is essentially how he describes broad access to the Internet via free and easy to use browsers, “open sourcing,” and “in-forming,” of which Friedman says, “"Never before in the history of the planet have so many people-on their own-had the ability to find so much information about so many things and about so many other people."
I define Democratization more precisely by its emphasis on the individual. This is in line with the accepted definition of the word democracy which includes, “the principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.” Specifically, the idea behind Democratization is that technologies, products, services, etc., that were formerly exclusively accessible to small groups of experts are becoming available to anyone. Clearly, the Internet is a major driving force in Democratization, but it is only a component of the trend. Outside of the design, engineering and manufacturing software world, consider the Internet’s impact on publishing and distribution of anything: a song, a book, a video, a musical score, etc. Now an individual who was unable to get a record contract, have their book published, get their video viewed, and so on, can publish it themselves online. A notable example of this in practice is the web site www.lulu.com.
Think Wikipedia, Digg, Gootube (as Mark Cuban calls it), the Long Tail, and BOP (Bottom Of the Pyramid). All of these speak to enabling and empowering the individual in some fashion, or at least smaller and smaller segments of society, the limit of which leads to one unique person. While I am looking at this as overwhelmingly positive, as usual, too much of a good thing can also end up being not so good. Consider the views expressed in Jaron Lanier’s essay titled “Digital Maosim.” Jaron argues that the Internet and things like Wikipedia give rise to a collective “hive mind” that actually isn’t so smart. Take Sanjaya on American Idol, please. Jaron is a pretty deep guy, I can only understand about half of what he writes, but I liked his essay. Plus, quoting him, or even being aware of him, is respected by the technorati, so I have that going for me.
So back to the idea of Democratization and how that fits into the design, engineering and manufacturing software world. Using Friedman’s words as a starting point, never before in the history of the planet have so many people had access to -on their own- to the same class of technology used by the world’s leading design, engineering and manufacturing firms.
It goes beyond software and web services to include hardware and machinery. A state of the art Vista-based PC capable of running a powerful 3D CAD system with hardware accelerated graphics can be had for well under $1,000, even under $500. Did you know you can buy a full 3-axis CNC mill from Sears for under $2,000? Sometimes this link does not work so if it doesn’t try searching on “Craftsman CompuCarve Compact Woodworking Machine” under the Tools department, or All departments, at www.sears.com. Granted the reviews on this machine aren’t that great, but it will improve. And this is just one example.
Consider ShopBot Tools. ShopBot produces professional CNC machine tools for under $7,000. Granted this isn’t necessarily a tool for anyone, but this is less than the average selling price of a single license of SolidWorks. It should also be noted that ShopBot uses Alibre Design software to design all their products creating an interesting virtuous cycle: Alibre Design provides affordable and capable software to design lower-cost CNC machine tools that, in turn, create demand for more 3D software, creating more demand for the machine tools, and on and on.
I wrote earlier that I wanted to use Democratization as an objective description of a broad trend versus a marketing tagline for a particular vendor, including Alibre. And if it isn't yet clear, I believe Democratization is a positive trend for all of us. Clearly, the holding of knowledge, power and wealth in the hands of a few is not good. While the deck is still, and probably will always be, stacked in the favor of large organizations with huge resources at their disposal, the Democratization trend shifts an increasingly greater amount of control and opportunity to the individual. If someone creates something of value and has the wherewithal to execute efficiently and smartly – not ingeniously – there is more opportunity to profit from it now than ever before.
Ideally, all vendors will contribute something to the trend, whether willingly and enthusiastically, or ultimately, kicking and screaming. At Alibre we like to think we’re doing our part. Check out our recent initiative with Popular Mechanics to help power their 3D Workshop. Most of you are probably aware of the magazine Popular Mechanics and its focus on inventors, hobbyists, engineers, basically anyone with an interest or passion in how things work, as well as technology in general. This group has recently been dubbed the DIY community, for Do-It-Yourself. Although the DIY moniker may be relatively new, the community is actually not, in fact, Popular Mechanics has been speaking to them for over 100 years. Check out this cover of their January 11, 1902 issue, published when Teddy Roosevelt was in office, and more than ten years before the Titanic sank. Democratization has taken a while to take hold.
For reference, Popular Mechanics “reaches more than 9 million readers monthly,” many of whom are enthusiastic inventors, woodworkers and serious hobbyists likely to be excited about the promise of 3D. The magazine has offered standard 2D prints and fabrication instructions for years, but now, via Alibre’s 3D capabilities, readers will also be able to spin the models around, zoom in on details, and animate the assembly to see all the component parts dynamically in real time with photorealistic textures.
So now any reader of Popular Mechanics can begin to explore and use true 3D. They can start and stop with simply viewing the 3D PDFs and imbedded animations available at the 3D Workshop, or they can take it a step further and download Alibre Design Xpress for free and start modeling their own project, using essentially the same class of 3D parametric solid modeling employed by large manufacturing and engineering firms.
On that note, and in honor of my referencing him above, in the words of the great Teddy Roosevelt, president at the publication of that 1902 issue of Popular Mechanics from so long ago, “It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance, and that in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does things.”