In the spring of 2008, I had a chance to visit FedEx headquarters in Memphis, as part of an executive development event – one of many that nGenera produces. We were hosted by Rob Carver, CIO of FedEx (still called FedExKinkos at the time), and the venue for our visit was FedEx Labs.
As part of the agenda, the FedEx Labs staff had graciously agreed to host small groups of our event participants in round-robin style in different parts of the office, to basically “show and tell” us what they were working on. There were four main stations we were invited to tour, as I recall, that each had some intriguing research and technology and/or process innovation that was in some stage of design.
But the one that caught my attention the most was the room with what looked like one of those 30-year old clackety high-speed dot-matrix printers that used to plow through box-fulls of green-bar paper back in the day.
Except instead of the device being a dot-matrix printer, it was a special-purpose ink-jet printer. But, here’s the cool part: no ordinary printer, this device printed in 3-D! In other words, rather than spraying the ink onto paper or some other printable medium, the printer slowly built micro-layer on top of micro-layer of ink until a fully-formed 3-D model was created!
The FedEx lab techs showed us numerous models that they had “printed” around the room – everything from model ships, to e-gaming avatars, to prototype shoe designs. In fact, I believe they said that personalized “World of Warcraft” figurines turned out to be the most popular printed items up to that point, in limited pilot tests. All printed items resembled something you would expect to make with a clay mold and kiln, with the resulting items having a hard form and a grayish-white exterior.
Fast forward 18-months and the ability to print “things” took another commercial step when two weeks ago Xerox announced that it had proven the ability to print an integrated circuit. With the development of a new silver ink, they claim their “scientists have paved the way for commercialization and low-cost manufacturing of printable electronics.”
Now, stick with me while I make a couple of leaps ahead. First leap: remember Furby’s? Well Furby 2.0 will be upon you this Christmas my friends, in case you haven’t seen the ads. Not surprising, but I’m already looking ahead to Furby 3.0 when, you can design and print your own personalized Furby. Or, similarly, that little robotic dog – the Aibo – that Sony introduced but couldn’t sustain due to expense.
Ok, one more leap: remember the Fifth Element? That Bruce Willis / Milla Jovovich sci-fi, action movie where Gary Oldman plays an arms-dealing, thinly-veiled Ross Perot of the future? Well, there’s a scene in the beginning where Jovovich’s genetic material is put in a people-sized version of the FedEx printer and, in a matter of movie moments, printed right before our eyes, in her birthday suit finest. (Although with conveniently PG-13-appropriate fashion-future band-aids strategically situated on her Victoria Secret-toned bod.)
I’ll close by paraphrasing what a mentor said to me a long while back: “Our nature is to invariably over-estimate how quickly an innovation will make an impact, but likewise under-estimate the long-term, profound impact of the innovation – an impact far beyond what we expected.”
In my opinion, our nature is also to create and I look forward to seeing the profound impact that innovations like the examples from FedEx Labs and Xerox have for us in the future.