There’s a lot of talk going on right now about whether web firms are innovating or just… bubbling. While the core may be going through a (necessary) consolidation phase, there are vital new spaces around it composed of companies that are just as much built on the web, but expanding outward from there rather than turning inward.

The variety here is impressive. Location based technologies, robotic integration, networked medical devices, and many others are all seeing explosive innovation as technology catches up with the visions.

The new area of manufacturing as a service (MaaS) is already gaining traction. The integration of networked processing, personalization, and physical production opens up entirely new possibilities in physical goods.

For ouroboros web firms, innovation may be drying up. For those looking outward, the possibilities are almost overwhelming as we work to bring the best of the web to the 99% of the world that isn’t contained within a browser window.

‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) is well established. ‘Hardware as a Service’ (HaaS) is joining it as a basic pattern, particularly in light of Amazon’s efforts. In the spirit of XaaS, we think that the next key piece of this is ‘Manufacturing as a Service’ (MaaS).

What is MaaS?

The current picture of manufacturing is tied to mass production. But new equipment and techniques are transforming the underlying assumptions. Light manufacturing tasks such as printing are experiencing the first wave of this.

It is now possible to complete and deliver personalized runs of one as easily as we previously produced runs of millions. This opens up the possibility of bringing these manufacturing tasks into the cloud of modern services. Production can be initiated from anywhere, with completely unique specifications, as easily as any other web service call is made.

As the final step is taken and these processes are exposed as services, any actor attached to the network can produce physical products on demand. More, these products can be customized to almost limitless specifications.

Transaction costs are dramatically reduced. Whereas those costs previously mandated centralization and commodification of products, forms, and delivery, true personalization is about to reach the world of manufacturing.

Impacts of Personal Production

Personalized production ranges from simple items (kitchen tools with grips sized to your hand) to complex (automobiles structured both for your body and optimized structurally for your intended use). Products can exist to meet the needs of small groups or even individual users rather than being ignored unless they have markets of millions.

Under these conditions, waste can be dramatically reduced. Manufacturers can eliminate overproduction and wasted or unsold runs. For consumers, products will be built to their specifications, removing the churn of inadequate goods.

For both, this will allow for faster transitions to new products and a far wider spectrum of available options. The tooling and training cycles which still define product time lines and delivery challenges can be eliminated.

Consumers will experience a level of satisfaction and ‘fit’ presently only available in the highest end personal services. It’s the fusion of the kind of customization possible with hand-crafted goods and the scale and consistency of mass production. And, as much as mass production opened a new era of cheap, consistent quality, but bland goods, so the era of personal production will open new standards of personalization, relevance, and impact while maintaining the advantages of the old system.

Early Results in Print

In print we’re already experiencing the first wave of this. The last five years have seen the introduction of digital presses and dynamic finishing equipment which make possible these new processes. For any area of manufacturing, the tools must come first.

While various firms have been transitioning traditional print shop activities to web based storefronts, a new wave of firms are taking the next step and exposing the underlying process through print APIs, integration with existing tools and services, and completely individual production.

The benefits are already clear. Manufacturing and consumer waste are dropping as organizations print letterhead dynamically (directly with documents as needed), marketing brochures when requested, and production consolidates eliminating the need for millions of underutilized printers. Both business and consumer users experience vastly better quality and service while manufacturers are able to better scale their production and respond to shifts in demand.

Entirely new uses are appearing as the potential of the systems become clear. Print, widely considered a dying industry, is finding a place for itself for at least the coming decades. As will likely be the case for many areas of manufacturing, the overall market is smaller, but of greater utility and value.

The transition is, of course, not a clean one. Thousands of print shops are going out of business each year as the industry transforms. It’s a type of challenge and promise which we can expect to see repeated in many industries.

Conclusion

The modern service cloud ushers in a fundamental shift in our accounting of economic costs. The endemic overhead in even the most basic of deals and transactions is perhaps the key factor in determining the structure of our economic systems at all scales. The service cloud can reduce those transaction costs to negligible levels.

Information processing, manufacturing, even traditional services will be a part of this (‘Service as a Service’ or SaaS_1 (being forced into subscripting acronyms is always a sign that a theory is on the right track)). While the frictionless economy is likely to always remain an unreachable ideal, we are at least decreasing these costs by orders of magnitude.

The implications of this extend beyond the products of these transactions and into the very structure of our organizations. Centralized decision making and classic organizational hierarchies are counter-productive when transaction and information costs decrease past a certain point. As the issues which defined the nature of the firm unravel, we enter into a period of organizational transformation. It promises to be interesting at least.

Web applications and services build value based on the networks they integrate. By producing links and automating connections, they can improve communication, offer new ways of working, and vastly decrease transaction costs.

However, the value of these networks often depends on all key members being willing to use the service. Any one key individual not using the service can eliminate the value of the whole process. Often it becomes easier to just stick to the old methods rather than have a hybrid with some using a system and some not.

Many services have failed due to a small group of hold-outs. We’ve seen this in areas ranging from real estate to CRM to manufacturing. Metcalf’s Law fails to take into account the negative effect of key gaps on processes within the network.

The question is how to connect these legacy workers? The route generally tried is to convince them to change their habits. But what if we focused instead on making it easy to connect their old habits with modern systems? Printed mail is one piece that could serve as this bridge. Whether it’s document delivery, linking in offline workers, or providing hard copies for legal purposes, print is able to serve as a conduit.

In many cases this would not be as efficient as if everyone just got online. But it is far better than the status quo. For web services it offers the ability to jump ahead of the technology adoption curve and establish themselves. For the next decade or two, there will continue to be key gaps in our digital networks. We can either fail in the face of them or learn to incorporate them through alternate means.

Some of the largest voting blocks in the country can’t be reached through the web. This issue is being highlighted by conditions in Iowa where internet usage is particularly low among likely voters.

Most campaigns have decided that their online efforts can’t help under those conditions. But, while local organizing, face-to-face meetings, and retail campaigning are all critical, there are interesting opportunities for campaigns with strong online communities.

Using a service like Postful, campaigns could make it easy to send personal letters. With very little effort (or expense), campaigns could link supporters to voters with similar backgrounds and interests.

It would allow voters to hear from people whose concerns and interests are more likely to mirror their own. It allows for communication outside of the ordinary media filters.

Letters could include copies of relevant news articles further explaining their position. Combining a personal endorsement and connection with the authority of a known news source could be powerful.

Campaigns not wanting to release voter information could either act as an intermediary for letters or even use something like Postful mailboxes. It would eliminate privacy issues while making it even easier for supporters to write.

The possibilities are extensive. Especially for campaigns with strong online support (currently led by Obama and Paul), such methods could provide a unique advantage. More, it could open the door to new forms of personal politics and campaigns.

Founders’ Day

October 17, 2007

The world is full of rightfully obscure holidays (working closely with the USPS, we get to witness all of them). However, there are a few which actually deserve far greater attention.

Founders’ Day is once such celebration. Every year on October 27, employees give gifts to the founders of the companies which employ them and consumers give gifts to the founders of companies they love. It’s a celebration of the gift of consumption which those companies give to us every day of the year.

At least here at Postful, it’s the one holiday we go all out on.

Now, as with most holidays, its history is perhaps somewhat less than charming. Origins date back to the feudal system where peasants were “asked” to provide gifts of thanks every year to the owners of their land. Homestead StrikeFounders’ Day in it’s modern form was inaugurated by Henry Clay Frick in 1896 as a punishment for workers after the Homestead Strike at Carnegie Steel.

Andrew Carnegie, on his return from travels abroad, learned of this decision and softened the holiday into something more resembling its modern form.

In terms of modern iconography, the popular characters of the Jolly Founder and the Spirit of Capital were introduced through advertising campaigns in the 30’s.

Over the years, the holiday has seen its popularity rise and fall. Over the last several years it’s enjoyed something of a resurgence, particularly in the US tech industry and the manufacturing sector in Southeast Asia.

This year we’d like to invite you all to join us in celebration! Only ten days left to pick out your gifts!

Why We Do This

October 16, 2007

Occasionally, we receive feedback from you that really reminds us why we’re doing this.

I recently received an e-mail describing the impact of a letter that arrived the day before a dear family friend passed away. I paused for a few minutes after reading the description of him smiling as he read and re-read the letter and looked at the included pictures.

Making just one moment like that possible justifies what we’ve put into this. And this is just one of the stories we’ve received from all of you.

Each time, I’m left with the sense that we’re actually doing something good. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of programming, support, marketing, and sales. It really helps to be reminded of the lives connected.

In any case, I wanted to share some sense of what this means to us. And I wanted to publicly thank all of you who have shared your stories with us.

Logs in the river

When dealing with print and paper, you have to consider the environmental impact. It was one of the earliest issues we looked at and one that we continue to examine as we expand.

Pure green tech is an exciting and important area. But it has to be combined with progress in legacy industries. We’ve focused on doing this with print, starting with basic improvements to the status quo and following up with consistent further steps.

Paper is the most obvious piece of this. With modern high-quality options, the decision to use recycled paper was easy. Our current stock is composed of 50% post-consumer waste.

We use inks and printing processes that are non-toxic and designed to limit solid waste.

But the largest impact was unexpected, a reduction in the need for personal printers. Many are purchased for the rare need to send a hard-copy. We can eliminate most of those situations.

Electronics manufacturing is both energy and resources intensive. Both printers and supplies include hazardous materials which are seldom disposed of safely. Every printer that we eliminate is both a global and a personal benefit to our users.

Overall, the key is to offer services that align the interests of users, company, and world as a whole. The more efficient and renewable our process becomes, the better the service we can offer, the less expensive it is for us, and the better for the environment. When you work from the start to align those interests, it makes it very easy to do the right thing.

photo by LHOON