It is easy to write off 3D printing as a niche technology, best left to hobbyists or for businesses producing extremely specialised, one-off components. But having seen some of the latest products made with the technology, I think it is moving very quickly towards the mainstream. You can now produce incredibly intricate pieces on a home 3D printer, albeit a high spec one, and industrial 3D printers provide even more power, speed and performance. There are now more and more community spaces with 3D printers (like Makespace in Cambridge), and even some local copy shops have one, delivering another way of bringing the technology to the mass market.
So, why do I think 3D printing is going mainstream? Because it taps into three key trends:
In our mass produced, brand-led world, we have an increasing a desire for personalisation. Many people want to show their individuality, and are willing to pay for it. So whether it is jewellery customised to fit your own body shape or a sculpture you’ve designed yourself, there is a market for 3D printed objects.
2 Need for precision
The boundaries of the possible are being pushed back. Medical science can do things that were previously thought impossible, while miniaturisation is shrinking the size of everyday objects around us, while making them much more complex. 3D printing enables the creation of precisely made replacement bones for medical use, as well as significant parts of intricate jet engines. All of these are high value objects, but the same methods can be used on more mundane applications. Take spare parts for consumer goods – normally if something small breaks (such as the shelf bracket of your fridge), you need to buy a replacement from the manufacturer at an exorbitant price. And that’s if you can even track down the part. Now, it is technically possible to 3D print the replacement, and while this obviously infringes copyright, it will be difficult for the original manufacturer to find out, let alone prosecute, you.
3 Infrastructure in the Cloud
The combination of the internet, the Cloud and smartphones provides a complete, cost-effective infrastructure to support 3D printing. You can take high resolution photos with your phone, upload them and have them turned into product plans by using the immense processing power available on the Cloud. Short of inspiration? You can find and download plans for just about anything to make yourself (unfortunately including guns) through a quick search.
So what markets will it disrupt? Recent announcements point to two that have real potential. As mentioned before, parts for jet engines are being made experimentally using 3D printing by both Rolls-Royce and academic researchers in Australia. As well as the ability to work to extremely fine tolerances, 3D printing also has the benefit of producing much less waste, as objects are built up, layer by layer, rather than carved out from a larger block of expensive material.
Secondly, and more in the consumer space, Argos has announced that it will run a trial that allows people to customise jewellery, both by adding messages and also changing the item’s dimensions. Previously the likes of the Royal Mail, Amazon and Asda have run 3D printing trials. Moving to more of a “make to order” model will help Argos in keeping stock costs down – and also help differentiate it against other retailers on the high street through exclusive products. Given that the likes of Argos have been hard hit by the rise of online shopping, it is a smart move that could well be expanded to other products.
Like many technologies, 3D printing will not only change existing markets, but also spawn completely new ones that have not yet been thought up. What is definite is that it provides brands and companies with a challenge – will the ability for complex customisation be a threat or an opportunity to their business?
After announcements last year, this week saw the launch of the first Apple Watches, although they won’t go on sale until 24 April. The cutely named Spring Forward event saw the tech giant reveal all 38 models, which will range in price from £299 (for the sport model) to £8,000+, depending on screen size, design and whether you want it in 18 carat gold.
More importantly Apple showed a selection of the apps that it expects to drive demand for the device. You can make touchless payments, receive phone calls, open a compatible hotel room door (rather than using a keycard), and remotely open an internet-connected garage door (no, I don’t have one of those either). However for a large number of functions, such as messaging, GPS tracking and making phone calls you’ll need an iPhone 5 to run alongside your new watch.
Apple is not a stupid company and has grown to be the biggest quoted business in the world by revenues through reinventing the music and smartphone markets. It hired former Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts to head up its online and physical stores, partly to help its move from technology into fashion with watches. I remember loudly proclaiming that the iPad would never catch on due its innate pointlessness, and now I rely on it every day. But I still see some serious challenges to the Apple Watch attaining critical mass. Here are four of them:
The cost of the Sport model begins at £299, with prices for the mid-tier Watch version starting at £479. To me, this is a lot of money to spend on a watch, even one that looks as sleek as the
Apple device. And for £900+ you can buy a low-end TAG Heuer, that you know will last for a long time without needing to be upgraded as software advances. Yes, millions of people have iPhones, but the vast majority got them on subsidised deals that meant they didn’t have to fork out close to the real sales price. A better comparison is the similarly priced iPad, which has seen sales slow as the market becomes saturated over time. Therefore predictions of sales of 60 million seem excessive, with the market much more limited than that.
2. Does it do anything different?
Anyone of a certain age who saw or read Dick Tracy loves the idea of using their watch to make a call, even if it is to the office rather than for police back up. But Dick Tracy didn’t have a smartphone, which can do pretty much everything a watch can do – and more besides. And as Apple has said, you’ll need to retain your iPhone to provide many of the functions that can’t be squeezed into the watch. Admittedly the iPhone is getting bigger, making it more difficult to use for things such as contactless payments, but equally the watch could be seen as too small for many other activities.
3. A whole new market
Apple has always been known for its design excellence, and the Watch appears to be equally stunning, admittedly with a bulkier face than a traditional wristwatch. Hiring Ahrendts also points to a desire to bring in luxury marketing nous to help it move into a different sector, where factors outside technology excellence and cool apps could be more important. Can it become the fashion accessory that everyone wants? In the ultra-competitive watch market it will be difficult, though expect Apple to try to jump the chasm from geek to cool.
4. Battery life
Watch batteries traditionally last for years. In contrast iPhones provide just hours of charge, depending on how much Candy Crush you are actually playing. So the news that the Apple Watch will keep going for 18 hours is disappointing to say the least (although the company says that it will continue to show the time for up to 72 hours after that). Essentially consumers will need to charge the watch every night, plugging it in alongside their iPhone ready for the morning. It just reinforces that this is a technology product, rather than something you wear, and is bound to put some people off.
I could be as wrong about the Apple Watch as I was about the iPad, but to me, despite the hype, it won’t move beyond being a niche product for fanboys and girls who want to pair it with their latest iPhones. For me, if I had the spare cash I’d buy a TAG instead and leave technology to my phone……….
If you needed evidence of the growth of the smartphone market and its move into every part of our lives, then this week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) provides it. It wasn’t that long ago that the event was dominated by network infrastructure companies, but now it is essentially a consumer electronics show in all but name. And one that looks far beyond the handset itself. Ford launched an electric bike, Ikea announced furniture that charged your smartphone and a crowdfunded startup showed a suitcase that knows where it is and how much it weighs.
Five years ago none of these companies would have even thought of attending MWC – and it is all down to the rise of the smartphone. It is difficult to comprehend that the first iPhone was only launched in 2007, at a time when Apple was a niche technology player. It is now worth more than any other company in the world and 2 billion people globally have an internet-connected smartphone. By 2020 analysts predict that 80% of the world’s adults will own a smartphone.
As any honest iPhone owner will freely admit, they may be sleek, but they are actually rubbish for making and receiving calls. What they do provide is two things – a truly personal computer that fits in your pocket, and access to a global network of cloud-based apps. It is the mixture of the personal and the industrial that make smartphones central to our lives. We can monitor our own vital signs, and the environment around us through fitness and health trackers and mapping apps, and at the same time access any piece of information in the world and monitor and control devices hundreds or thousands of miles away. Provided you have a signal……….
So, based on what is on show at MWC, what are the next steps for the smartphone? So far it seems to split into two strands – virtual reality and the Internet of Things. HTC launched a new virtual reality headset, joining the likes of Sony, Microsoft, Samsung and Oculus Rift, promising a more immersive experience. Sensors to measure (and control) everything from bikes and cars to tennis racquets are also on show. The sole common denominator is that they rely on a smartphone and its connectivity to get information in and out quickly.
It is easy to look at some of the more outlandish predictions for connected technology and write them off as unlikely to make it into the mainstream. But then, back in 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, there were plenty of people who thought it would never take off. The smartphone revolution will continue to take over our lives – though I’m not looking forward to navigating streets full of people wearing virtual reality headsets who think they are on the beach, rather than on their way to work…………
According to a new report, more and more of us are working in digital technology companies. Research led by Tech Nation has found that 1.46 million people (or 7% of the workforce) are employed by more than 47,000 digital companies across the UK – and of these just 250,000 are working in inner London. 74% of digital companies are located outside London.
To put that in perspective, according to other government figures, agriculture employs 535,000 workers, construction 2.2 million and manufacturing 2.6 million. So nearly three times as many people tend computers instead of animals. Heartening stuff, and a welcome antidote to some of the more extreme London-oriented digital stories seen in the media.
The highest density clusters in the report are Brighton & Hove, Inner London, Berkshire (including Reading), Edinburgh and Cambridge, while the highest rates of digital employment are in London, Bristol and Bath, Greater Manchester, Berkshire and Leeds.
It is easy to be cynical about the timing of the government-backed report, with an election coming up fast. I’d also query the definition of ‘digital’ – my PR business makes it in, which seems to show a wide classification range (not that I’m complaining). The headline findings that certain sectors have more digital companies than the national average (Brighton 3.3x, Cambridge 1.5x, for example), is interesting, but needs to be put into context. Brighton employs 7,458 people in digital, out of a population of 155,000 – under 5% compared to other clusters that potentially have a greater proportion of digital workers.
But what is more interesting is how the research reinforces the importance of clusters. Statistics include:
- 77% of respondents have a network of entrepreneurs with whom they share experiences and ideas. This rises to 90% in Cambridge.
- 54% believe their clusters help attract talent (65% in Cambridge).
- 40% believe their cluster gets them access to affordable property (such as science parks or co-working spaces).
- 33% believe their cluster helps attract inward investment
- For Cambridge, access to advice and mentorship was seen as twice as important to growth than nationally (scoring +100%), and the positive perception of the Cambridge brand (+62%), was also a key driver for expansion.
- Issues highlighted in Cambridge include poor transport infrastructure (scoring -111% compared to the UK average) and lack of available property (-31%).
This clearly demonstrates that to succeed and grow, tech businesses need to be part of an ecosystem that provides support, the right conditions to start (and grow) and that more and more of these are springing up across the UK. Nurturing a cluster takes time, so everyone involved, from local government to academia and investors have to think long term if they want to develop a tech ecosystem in their area.
What I’d like to see is companies and regions use this report as a starting point to build closer ties. Firstly, any businesses that feel they’ve missed out need to get on board and be given the chance to be added to the report. This is vital to keep it as a living, interactive document that maps changes over time.
Secondly, local government and organisations need to take a look and make sure that they are reaching the companies in their area, and providing them with the conditions for growth. At the very least local networks (or in their absence, local councils) should be making digital companies aware of their existence, and what they can do to help them. That way more sub clusters will form and grow, strengthening the overall picture.
I don’t think we’re yet the full Tech Nation that the report and research promises, but we’re definitely on the way – we therefore need continued focus and investment if we’re going to move forward, across the country.
This week the election campaign has been focusing on education, with the Conservative Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, promising that every child leaving primary school must know their times tables up to 12 and be able to use correct punctuation, spelling and grammar. It follows her predecessor, Michael Gove, revamping the history curriculum to ensure that pupils know about key dates in British history – a move that some saw as a return to Victorian rote learning of facts.
Morgan complains that Britain has slumped in international education league tables, and has vowed to move the country up in rankings for maths and English. But ignoring the fact that children are already tested on times tables, I think she’s missing the point about modern education and the skills it teaches. Of course, children should know their times tables, and be able to read and write. These are basic skills that everyone should have.
But we are in an era of enormous change, and the skills that the workforce of tomorrow requires will be very different to those of today. Increased globalisation, the advent of the knowledge economy and greater technology are impacting on all jobs. Previously safe, middle income management occupations will be broken into smaller chunks and either computerised or outsourced, hollowing out the workforce so that what remains are high end, knowledge-based roles or more menial tasks.
What we need to do is prepare our children for this world by helping them to develop the skills that they require to work in this brave new world. A large proportion of today’s pupils will end up working in jobs that don’t currently exist, so you need to focus on three areas:
1. Learning to learn
Rather than simply teaching facts and tables, you need to instil in children the skills they need to keep learning. These range from problem solving, resilience and working as a team, to ensuring they have inquiring minds and are always pushing themselves.
2. Lifelong learning
Alongside learning to learn, everyone needs to understand that education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university. Whatever field you are in, you’ll need new skills as your career evolves, so it has to be seen as natural to keep learning. The days of working for the same company for ever are long gone, and the days of working in the same role throughout your career are going the same way. So, people will have to make radical moves into new industries and careers, and that will require ongoing investment in learning new skills.
The UK government has re-introduced coding to the school curriculum, which is a major step forward in ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed to understand and work with technology. While most jobs have required IT for a while, the spread of software into every corner of our lives means that those who understand and program computers will have a big advantage over those that just use them to type emails or surf the net. I’d like to see more government investment in coding for all, alongside schools, so that everyone learns the skills they need.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a laudable aim that every child should leave primary school knowing that 12×12 is 144 and how to use an apostrophe. But we need to be teaching our children a lot more than that if we want to nurture a workforce of self-starting, motivated and problem solving adults that can drive innovation and wealth for the country and wider society.
Countries and cities across the world are busily trying to build tech clusters. Partly this is due to the sexiness of tech (expect the UK election to feature plenty of photo opportunities of candidates with startups), partly down to the fact that it seems easy to do, and a lot to do with the benefits it delivers to a local economy. In an era where technology is radically changing how we work, play and live, high value tech companies are always going to be prized.
But how do you build a tech cluster? It may seem easy to do on the outside – set up some co-working spaces, provide some money and sit back and wait for the ideas to flourish, but it is actually incredibly difficult. This is demonstrated by the diverging fortunes of the locations of England’s oldest universities – Oxford and Cambridge. As a recent piece in The Economist explains, over the last few years Cambridge has added more well-paid jobs, highly educated residents and workers in general than its rival. This prompted a visit last October to the city from an Oxford delegation, with the leader of Oxford City Council admitting that “Cambridge is at least 20 years ahead of us.”
Given the longstanding competition between the two cities, it is easy for people in Cambridge to sit back smugly, pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on a job well done. However, a better course of action is to take a look at what is behind Cambridge’s success, and see what can be done to improve things. After all, there are startup and tech clusters around the world – competition is global – so there’s nothing to stop entrepreneurs setting up in Silicon Valley, Munich, Paris or London rather than Cambridge.
I see five factors underpinning the success of any tech cluster:
1. Ideas and skills
The first thing you need to build any business is obviously a good idea. Universities, particularly those involved in scientific research such as Oxford and Cambridge have plenty of these. But you need a specific type of person to be involved with the research – with a mindset that goes beyond academia and understands how a breakthrough idea can be turned into a viable business. You then need to be able to access the right skills to develop the idea technically, whether through commercial research or programming.
2. Support infrastructure
This is where Cambridge scores highly in being able to commercialise discoveries, through a long-established support infrastructure. The Cambridge Science Park opened in the 1970s, while the University has put in place teams to help researchers turn their ideas into businesses. Research-led consultancies, such as Cambridge Consultants, provide another outlet to develop ideas, as well as helping to keep bright graduates in the city. There is also a full range of experienced lawyers, PR people, accountants and other key support businesses to help companies form and grow.
Obviously without money no idea is going to make it off the drawing board. Cambridge has attracted investment from local and international venture capital, and has a thriving group of angel investors, who can share their experiences as well as their funding. Due to the length of time Silicon Fen has been operating, investment has been recycled, with successful exits fuelling new startups that then have the opportunity to grow.
4. Space to expand
Cambridge is a small city, and the combination of its green belt, lack of post-industrial brownfield sites and an historic centre owned by colleges, puts a huge pressure on housing stocks. As anyone that lives in Cambridge knows, house prices are not far shy of London – but spare a thought for Oxford residents. In 2014 an Oxford home costs 11.3 times average local earnings, nearly double the British norm of 5.8 times. Additionally, as The Economist points out, there is space outside the Cambridge greenbelt for people to build on, with South Cambridgeshire Council, which surrounds the city, understanding the importance of helping the local economy. In contrast, Oxford has four different district councils, and a powerful lobby of wealthy residents who want to keep their countryside pristine, hampering housing development. That’s not to say that Cambridge is perfect, far from it. More can be done to improve transport links to reduce commuting time and to spread the benefits of Cambridge’s economic success.
Ultimately tech clusters are judged by the success of the companies they produce. And Cambridge, partly due to the longevity of the cluster, has created multiple billion dollar businesses, from ARM to Cambridge Silicon Radio. This not only puts the area on the map for investors, but attracts entrepreneurs who want to tap into talent and spawns new businesses as staff move on and set up on their own. You therefore see sub-clusters in particular areas of tech develop as specialists use their knowledge to solve different problems. This then further strengthens the ecosystem.
Tech clusters are slow to build and can’t be simply willed into existence by governments opening their wallets. They need patience, a full range of skills and co-operation across the ecosystem if they are to grow and flourish – as the relative fortunes of Cambridge and Oxford show.
Forget city-based startup clusters, as, according to new government figures, the countryside is now the place to launch your business. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report points out that the rural population will grow by 6% over the next decade, with more people moving from cities to the countryside than vice versa. More businesses are starting in the countryside than in cities, and rural productivity is growing for the first time since the industrial revolution.
All very positive, leading to Environment Secretary Liz Truss to talk up the innovation within rural areas and point out that people will no longer have to commute to cities, but can work from home using newly deployed superfast broadband.
This all sounds incredibly positive, but as someone who lives (and works) in the countryside I can see four big issues that are holding back rural growth.
1 Networking in a field
While there are more businesses being started outside urban areas, London is still the dominant place for startups, reflecting its position as the centre of the economy. One of the advantages that London and other cities/towns have, is a concentration of people and companies in a small space. This means that it is easy to network, partner and find suppliers to help you grow. Things are much more scattered in rural areas and it is more difficult to identify other companies. I only know about the two people in my village of 3,000 people running complementary businesses to my own because of chance meetings in the school playground. So, there needs to be more done to link rural businesses together in order to help them network.
2 Intermittent infrastructure
A lot has been made about the rollout of rural superfast broadband, and that is improving. But I still don’t have a 3G signal or decent mobile reception in my office, making it more difficult to work. Getting all communications channels right is vital if companies are going to set up and thrive in rural areas. The government has talked about addressing rural mobile “notspots” and this has to be a priority to help everyone in the countryside (not just businesses).
3 Transport by tractor
I’m obviously speaking personally about where I live but rail transport links to London are rickety and slow, while roads can be congested and prone to traffic jams. This means getting anywhere takes time – more time than it should. And, given that for a lot of businesses, including mine, you still need to get to London relatively regularly, this is a cost to doing business in the countryside.
4 Finding skills
Locating staff with the right skills to help your business grow is hard, wherever you are based. But it is much more difficult in rural areas due to the lack of networking and also that a lot of the best talent disappears off to cities and universities straight after school. That is perfectly understandable – but it does mean people don’t tend to return to the countryside until they are settling down and starting a family. This leaves a gap in the market when looking for bright, ambitious staff with some experience who are willing to learn. A lack of affordable housing doesn’t help persuade people to stay in the countryside either.
Don’t get me wrong, I love working in the countryside and contributing to a thriving rural economy. However, government needs to do more if it is to create sustainable, knowledge-based companies and that starts with investment in infrastructure, networking and skills.
The cover story in last week’s Economist looked at the growing global dominance of internet giants such as Google and Facebook. This was partly driven by the fact that the European Parliament recently passed a resolution to more tightly regulate internet search and potentially break up Google, as well as by ongoing worries about competition and online privacy.
So are effective online monopolies (Google has 90% of the European search market for example) a good or bad thing?
Obviously in the real world monopolies are viewed with suspicion, particularly when a dominant position is then used to raise prices, unfairly squeeze competitors and generally provide a poor deal to customers. But a monopoly on its own is not enough for regulators to step in. In many niche markets (say chemicals) the investment needed to compete with a dominant incumbent would put off any new entrants, so it becomes a monopoly by default. If it doesn’t abuse its position regulators tend to just monitor the situation without taking action.
So, no-one would argue against the fact that monopolies need to be watched closely. But what is interesting is the difference between the online and offline worlds, in four key ways. Firstly, the cost of entering an internet market is relatively small – you’d don’t need to build an expensive factory, but can rely on scalable, inexpensive cloud-based servers and storage to host your business. This makes expansion easy, particularly given the widespread adoption of the internet and mobile phones across the globe, providing a proven way of connecting with customers.
The second factor that causes internet businesses to grow exponentially is the network effect. Essentially the more users on a service, such as Facebook, the better it is for everyone involved as there are more people to interact with. In turn this attracts more people in a virtuous circle. It can work the other way though – as the fate of early social networks such as MySpace show.
Thirdly, the majority of the internet services being discussed are free to consumers. So they don’t directly see any negative impact from the monopoly (such as a rise in costs). What isn’t immediately obvious to users is the price of free. Essentially their personal data is used to power advertising, direct mail and other marketing campaigns, with many consumers having a hazy understanding of what their information is being used for, or how to increase privacy settings. In fact, it is advertisers that can feel the impact of higher prices, given the online control of the internet giants.
The final difference, and one that The Economist makes much of, is the speed of change in the technology space, and how this makes today’s monopolies tomorrow’s has-beens. Companies find it hard to jump from leading one wave of innovation to competing in a new space. IBM dominated the mainframe market, but has had to reinvent itself in order to survive, while the replacement of the personal computer with tablets and smartphones has dealt a major blow to Microsoft.
However, these are still multi-billion dollar companies and have hardly withered away. Therefore in my view, technology innovation alone is not enough to regulate the internet giants. What is needed aren’t heavy handed rules, but a more measured approach that balances the needs of consumers with the speed of innovation and the potential competitive impact of monopoly positions. It is an incredibly difficult balancing act – and will require give and take from both sides if it is to succeed. Done right and new breakthrough services will be allowed to grow, but without trampling on other businesses. Get it wrong and innovation is stifled, potentially harming consumers and businesses who want to access the latest technology and services.
In previous blogs I’ve talked at length about the UK’s inability to turn a high enough percentage of tech startups into market leaders, compared to countries such as the USA. This may be changing, according to a new report from the Startup Europe Partnership (SEP). This identifies around 400 tech ‘scale-ups’ – essentially startups that have raised more than $1 million over the last three years. 70% of these received funding of between $1-$9 million, with 15 raising over $100m.
Taken at face value this looks like great news – investment is up and the UK is leading Europe when it comes to building viable, long term businesses. However dig a bit deeper into the data and some issues emerge. SEP is upfront that its research just covers what it calls ‘ICT’, and misses out biotech, cleantech and what it calls hard-tech (and there was me thinking all tech was hard).
So the lists of companies named are dominated by companies that essentially use the internet as a platform for their business – such as Wonga, Truphone, Funding Circle and white goods retailer AO World. All, with the exception of Wonga, solid companies that are expanding rapidly, but not really what I’d class as technology companies. The problem is that they tend to attract more capital, and consequently elbow the likes of Ubisense (which raised $14.5 million through its IPO in 2011) from the front page of the pretty graphs. And if you grow organically, without needing additional investment, you don’t show up at all.
Is this an issue? I think it is from both a perception and a valuation point of view. The general public ends up thinking of a startup as being something like Spotify or Just Eat, rather than a company that provides clever technology that may operate invisibly to them, supporting the wider digital economy. This can have a knock-on effect on press coverage, recruitment and ultimately the type of startups that are founded. Additionally investors are motivated by returns, and if they see that the payback is better with less technical, more consumer-focused businesses they are likely to invest accordingly.
It would be rude of me to sound like I’m completely knocking SEP. They are shining a light on the European tech sector and at the same time lobbying to increase the support that startups get, in particular by connecting the fragmented European tech economy. But, if we are to present the tech sector in the best possible light, we need to widen the discussion away from the flashier end of the market and embrace the difficult hardtech area. After all these are the ideas and companies that have the potential power to really change the way we live, work and play, and consequently deliver the biggest benefits to Europe as a whole. We need more ARMs, and fewer Wongas, and to start, more rigorous definitions of what a tech startup – or scale-up – actually is.