Lin's Blog:
Digital Physical Products in a world of disrupted supply chains
Published 1 August 2020

As you know, I am working on the future of engineering and manufacturing with Hyperganic. Many good things are happening here (check out this feature in Dezeen, that was recently published about us).

Nevertheless, one of the things on my mind these days is the obvious fragility and inflexibility of our supply chains in a world full of lockdowns and trade barriers

How can we become more resilient and more adaptive?
How can we build the tools to address a changing world with more uncertainty?

What we need are Digital Physical Products: Products that are engineered and collaborated on digitally without friction. Which are sold and traded as digital assets and which are manufactured close to the end-user in automated factories. These factories have industrial 3D printing at their center.

It is my firm belief that Digital Physical Products (DPPs) can not only help us be more resilient and flexible; they can also generally jumpstart innovation and enable a vibrant digital trade ecosystem of solutions to our global challenges.

Below is some of my thinking.

This subject also was the topic of a conversation that I had with Dr. Lucian Cernat, the Chief Trade Economist of the European Commission. You can re-watch the discussion below:

A Black Swan Event

Our times were already interesting without the current crisis. Even before COVID-19, we were increasingly rethinking how the world will need to look like to sustain the future of humanity. But now, in a world of lockdowns, even more things we took for granted have been called into question. One of them, unfortunately, is the notion of free trade and international collaboration.

It seems like every country is fighting its own battle. Why is that?

Ironically, the virus shows us clearly, that we do live on one planet and not on small islands within our borders. This crisis will go away at a point. But many other challenges will remain. All of the issues spelled out in by the UN Sustainable Development Goals will still need to be addressed — and quickly.

For that, we need the international community more than ever.
And: we need global trade of the best solutions, regardless of where they originate. Many of these solutions involve physical products.

Moving Manufacturing Home

There are reasonable concerns about supply chains and what happens, when these lifelines are cut by improbable events. Calls to move manufacturing “back home” will become louder. This is not a bad thing. Our current system of shipping things all over the globe, chasing the cheapest labor, is clearly not sustainable.

So, I welcome the idea of producing things closer to the end user. But how do we ensure that we still have fresh ideas and innovation, in a world of fragmented production “back home”? The overhead and inertia involved in operating traditional factories all over the world could be stifling.

The answer lies in Digital Fabrication in automated factories that have industrial 3D printers at their heart.

Today’s factories are extremely specialized and need to be retooled in order to produce different things. Digital Fabrication can produce different objects without retooling, which is incredibly valuable in times of change. In the current crisis, some things were urgently needed and others completely superfluous. The future of production needs to be more flexible.

Conventional supply chain

Digital Physical Products

Our current physical products are produced in centralized factories. These products don’t easily scale and have to be shipped in physical form. Innovation is difficult, because every change causes a ripple effect through the supply chain, resulting in expensive retooling and adaptation. And, these supply chains, as we have seen, are easy to break. Through pandemics, but also through man-made trade barriers

On the other hand, we already have products that are flexible, that can scale infinitely and can immediately be deployed around the globe: Purely digital products. They never exist in physical form. They are intangible assets: music, stock images, videos, software. You can remix and combine — software is even adaptive to different circumstances. Innovation is quick and delivery is instant, you can adapt to change rapidly and easily.

Digital Fabrication now enables a new type of asset: Digital Physical Products (DPPs).

A DPP is a physical product, a tangible object — but it is engineered, traded and shipped in digital form, until it is transformed, at the last moment, into a physical product. So only shortly before it ends up in the hands of the customer, is it actually physically manufactured.

Digital Physical Objects enable digital collaboration and truly digital supply chains. Instead of shipping physical parts, digital components are made available for virtual assembly. These components can be more than static representations of a part. They can be smart, dynamic, driven by algorithms: they can adapt to the role they play in a product. They are context sensitive. As a result, the entire product can be individually optimized. Things can be customized to each end use but also each end user.

So, in a DPP economy, you always choose the best possible solution and implement it instantly.

Virtual supply chain in a Digital Physical Product economy.

Manufacturing Under Moore’s Law

As a result, ideas and best practices spread much quicker. Physical objects can finally be engineered at the speed of Moore’s Law. The slow traditional trade of physical objects is replaced by the rapid exchange of ideas and the race to the top. We can engage the ideas of the entire international community without having to deal with cumbersome transportation issues.

This is exactly what, for decades now, we experienced in the ultimate digital product: Software. Now, more than ever, is the time to move engineering and manufacturing to this new paradigm.

A century ago, if you wanted to transfer money, you loaded a wagon with bags of gold coins. Today, we routinely trade billions digitally and instantly. The same transformation will happen in the world of tangible objects, with the introduction of Digital Physical Products.

I hope that one positive outcome of the current crisis is an acceleration of this transformation. We badly need it.

Stay safe and healthy — and please let me know your thoughts.

Thoughts? Connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn and let’s discuss.

About Lin Kayser
Lin is the co-founder and CEO of the Hyperganic Group. His entrepreneurial journey stretches back to the early 1990s and covers areas as diverse as industrial control systems and transforming Hollywood from analog to digital.

This is his personal blog which contains many posts that pre-date Hyperganic. His views are his own.

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