As the world grows more and more digital, it’s going to take a while for people to adapt to the idea of stuff being less and less real – or, rather, less physically real. Virtual things are just as real in a lot of ways, but you can’t squeeze them. Over time, concepts like virtual money and virtual storage and so on have become or are becoming commonplace enough that we’re getting used to them. But the inherent lack of tangibility is a weirdness; it’s something we have to get our small human heads around. Since the beginning, everything we’ve dealt with has been there. That’s not the case any more.
For a long while I had a hard time using bank drive-through windows. The separation made me nervous. It’s my money we’re dealing with, you know, and I felt very powerless with the whole thing unless I was able to see the whites of their eyes (or, in gentler times, have at least the option to reach across the counter and throttle them if something went wrong. Bulletproof glass ruined that for me). Eventually though, convenience won out over nervousness and I drive merrily through like everyone else. I still can’t bring myself to use an ATM to make a deposit, though. Doesn’t seem real. Who can I throttle if something goes wrong?
Similarly, it’s taken a fair bit of time for people to get comfortable with ideas like cloud storage. Push computing, superthin clients, and software as a service have all struggled to varying degrees. Why? Honestly, it’s because people aren’t 100% comfortable yet with the idea that things of value, things they’ve paid for or that are worth money, aren’t under their roofs.
Naturally we get used to things over time. I once got physical DVDs from Netflix; now I stream my movies through my Xbox. I have a box in the garage full of old CDs, but long ago I fed them all to Amazon Cloud Player and forgot about them. DropBox is host to the vast majority of my personal files; more still are held on Google’s servers, where I don’t even retain local copies. Streaming services like Gaikai and OnLive promise to change the way we own video game software. Microsoft’s next version of Office will have entirely-cloud versions. I’d hazard a guess that in ten years or so, practically all the software and entertainment we consume not only won’t exist on physical media, but we won’t even have digital copies in our possession.
This leads to an interesting juxtaposition with modeling and simulation concepts. To this day I run into people – well meaning, intelligent people – who get the heebie-jeebies at the thought of no more physical prototypes. The irony, of course, is that physical prototyping is less consistent, less exhaustive, less robust, less able to support all variables, and less affordable than the virtual kind.
Logically, everyone understands this. If I design a part and then build a few for testing, I’ll maybe melt one, leave another out in the sun for a while, marinate a third in salt, run over the fourth with a car, what have you. Based on the results I’ll tweak my design and probably go through the whole process again. It’s expensive and slow, and I only get a very narrow window of results.
Virtually, though, I could melt my part a million different ways; leave it out in the sun under countless weather conditions; marinate it in fifty thousand different kinds of salt; and run over it with a sedan, a coupe, a bicycle, a tank, a truck, a Segway, and anything else I so desire. I can do it very quickly and much cheaper. To accomplish the same in the real world would take forever, not to mention the need to build all the prototypes, rent all the vehicles, and find a reliable dealer for all those different flavors of salt.
Yet somehow, to us, the results of physical prototyping, because we can hold them in our hands, seem more real. We can point to a prototype and say “this is where I ran it over with a car.” Looking at results onscreen, manipulating the data rather than manipulating the object, still somehow seems less satisfying to us. Forget the immensity of test variables that virtualization allows for; forget the cost reduction. To small and medium manufacturers who have always done things a certain way, converting what had once been so profoundly physical into something that’s virtual is just plain weird.
And like everything else, it’s going to a take while (hopefully not a long while) for engineers and product designers to get used to the idea of virtualization, and comfortable with the fact that it offers untold benefits over the inefficient, less complete, expensive physical alternative.
Fact is, many of the paradigm shifts that digital manufacturing will require are cultural and psychological. Not all the barriers are related to cost of hardware or availability of software. Those things are real obstacles, but the emotional ones are just as real – if a little more intangible. Much of the education and outreach we’re doing should be focused on getting people comfortable with new (and exciting, once the scary wears off) ideas. It’s not just about certifying manufacturers in how to use the technology, its helping them get their heads around the promise.