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mapping the puget cleantech innovation ecosystem

Innovation is about much more than a couple of people in a garage or coffee shop with an idea and a laptop. Instead, researchers have found innovation requires a web of relationships – an ecosystem – of inventors, marketers, researchers, subcontractors, financiers and educators. I have identified more than 250 such entities in the Puget Sound region that comprise the cleantech innovation ecosystem. The graphic here illustrates the areas in which these various entities are active. Contact me for a whitepaper on the topic which will be published soon.

placemaking is about more than decor

This is Seattle, right, the home of the coffee meeting. I have just concluded a couple of these at Starbucks; where else? The eponymous coffee brewer has defined the premium coffee chain category and has become the default off – site, out – of – the – house venue for working/meeting countrywide. But the interesting thing about today’s meeting on Seattle’s Eastside, was that this store was in the middle of remodeling. We got bare concrete floors and walls, and exposed metal studs and the place was still jammed; every table taken and about 70% of the patrons apparently engaged in meetings or working alone. The point is that this location has apparently become so firmly established that people will patronize it even when the furnishings are closer to a church basement than an upscale coffee bar. The brand is so strongly associated with the new style of work that it transcends decor. I’m wondering what will happen when the makeover is actually finished? Will business go down?

choice architecture and transit

I recently moved to the Seattle suburbs after living more than 25 years on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. My wife and I love the Pacific Northwest’s natural environment but we’re less enamored of the time we spend in the car; especially sitting in traffic. For Seattle, and most solvent big cities, traffic vies for a top spot among the most pressing metropolitan issues. The solution to traffic, we know, isn’t more lanes and freeways, but better transit, carefully planned higher residential density and more jobs within walking distance. Even so, this involves a lot of expensive infrastructure, difficult policy making and ultimately time – generally years. In the meantime while we’re grinding away on big infrastructure, what can be done more cheaply, easily and faster, that can still make a dent in traffic congestion?

This is where behavioral economics and choice architecture enter the picture. Behavioral economics examines the effects of social, psychological and affective factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions. The objective of choice architecture, which is basically an applied subset of behavioral economics identified by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is to influence outcomes by the way a choice is presented to the the decision-maker. Of course this can work both ways. Advertisers and merchants use choice architecture to get us to buy more, and more expensive, stuff. But choice architecture can also be employed to help us be more healthy, more financially stable, and to increase social/environmental benefits, such as reducing traffic congestion.

Venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, who has invested in a number of clean technology initiatives, has asserted that he is dubious of initiatives and technologies that requires people to change their basic behavior. Choice architecture’s premise runs counter to that. That is, with the proper presentation and framing of information people’s behaviors can change. In this case the change would be increased transit use.

For example, what if people’s choices about transportation were as carefully crafted as the way Amazon designs, tests and deploys the shopping process on its website? Amazon knows the impact of a menu button change on its sales volume, having previously tested proposed changes in side by side comparisons with existing pages. In the case of transit use, what modifications in the way transit use is presented to the public could result in measurable increases in ridership and concomitant reductions in traffic congestion.

As a prospective example of choice architecture, I received car registration renewal in the mail a few days ago. Along with the new license tags, came a letter from the local King County Metro transit agency offering me 8 free transit passes if I filled out a short form, put a stamp on it and mailed it back. This is a great promotion, but I wonder if the decision could have been presented in more compelling fashion. How many drivers take up Metro on this premium? The promotion is headlined “Free Bus Tickets.” Could another header such as “Save $20″ (the value of the tickets) have been more effective? What else can be done to improve transit use by framing transit choices more effectively, without adding another bus or paving another lane. Should the tickets have been included with the offer; should a postage paid envelope been included? There are a lot of soft variables impacting choices that could ultimately result in less congestion, more productivity, and cleaner air.

The “I” Layer; How Information Transforms Urban Design

The New Information Layer in Urban Design

Conventional urban design has organized and deployed systems of physical objects to create more functional, sustainable and pleasing cities. Now, a multitude of mostly non – physical, information based technologies and applications have added another vital layer to the designer’s toolbox. I call this the “I” layer – for information. Unlike the physically based systems/layers of traditional urban design, the “I” layer is comparatively easy to implement and relies on very little or no physical infrastructure. Both public and private sectors can contribute; building networks that make cities more vibrant and efficient.

A Short History of Making

the promise of additive manufacturing

In the beginning, the consumer was also the producer. People made simple tools and weapons and used them to survive. Gradually, consumer and producer grew apart. Nowadays, many of the objects we use are made half a world away. But, this could change, with the advent of a disruptive technology. Consumers and producers may once again be in close proximity.

Many of you will recognize the pictured item as created with a 3D printer. This technology is also called additive manufacturing, since very thin layers of material are added successively to create a three dimensional shape.  Additive manufacturing promises to transform the way many things are made and in so doing change sizable portions of the economy.

Briefly, this is what additive manufacturing promises:

  • Accelerates product development by rapid prototyping
  • Renders small run and custom parts feasible by virtue of no tooling
  • Makes heretofore impossibly complex shapes and assemblies buildable
  • Shortens supply chains by placing manufacturing closer to the consumer

While not all of these objectives have been fully achieved, 3D printing has become increasingly cheap and ubiquitous. Read other blog posts here to review my experience with additive manufacturing. As with most new technologies, the development path is not entirely smooth, but the upside is huge. The diagram below sketches a short history – and likely – future of making. For a larger printable version of the diagram click the pdf link.

pdf of  A Short History (and future) of Making

Wind on the Cliff; Production Tax Credit in Jeopardy

We hope the coming budget debate doesn’t leave the Renewable Energy Production Tax Credit (PTC) for wind a victim. Due to expire at the end of the year, the tax credit has been a boon to wind power development. The tax credit has not only resulted in more than 52,000 MW of wind power in place, it has created a domestic industry providing more than 30,000 jobs. At the least, wind should have an equal place at the legislative table as a new tax code is hammered out in in 2014.

prototyping interactive sculpture


Another chapter unfolds in the exploration of interactive sculpture. Past work used streaming weather data to control  motion. Now, we’re working on more proximate inputs to prompt movement, such as audience activity. There will be updates as this work evolves.

creating a maker oriented science center

We recently completed a conceptual design and programming study for a maker oriented science center in the Mid Atlantic region. Informal education venues, such as science centers and museums, will be increasingly important nodes in a national network for STEM Education (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). The proposed concept puts hands on activities and making front and center.

Economics of Additive Manufacturing

I’ve written previously about the advantages of digital fabrication and additive manufacturing (3D printing) specifically. But how do the economics for 3 D printing stack up in the real world against conventional manufacturing techniques such as injection molding.

Summarizing 3D printing selling points:

  1. Ability to print shapes and assemblies likely impossible with other methods – such as intricately formed or nested shapes and structures.
  2. Ease of creating custom shaped objects to meet individual parameters – such as ergonomically tailored sports or medical devices.
  3. Ability to manufacture low volume, but high value objects cost effectively by eliminating expensive tooling and molding.

3D printing offers some clear advantages in the instances one and two above. For instance one, when there are no other physically feasible manufacturing options for a particular form, 3D printing is the only choice. Printing simply does what cannot be accomplished by other means.

Instance number two is somewhat similar. A custom formed object/device fits an individual perfectly and will be produced only once or at most a few times for that person. A conventionally injection molded piece might be too expensive, given the high costs of molds. 3D printing has a clear advantage in both these cases. But what about case three – an anticipated low volume run or a situation where it doesn’t make sense to invest in sizable opening inventories?

Let’s look at an example. In two previous posts I described digital fabrication of a moderately complex lamp of my design, using 3D printed plastic and laser cut acrylic parts. The lamp is made of a central hub which holds the electrical socket and has twisted fins that extend to attach laser cut pieces comprising the lamp shade. (see the white finned hub component in the picture below). What would a comparatively low volume conventional, injection molded hub piece cost, versus the 3D printed version?

Fortunately, it’s now possible to get online quotes for both injection molded and 3D printed parts. I used www.IcoMold.com to estimate injection molded hub pieces and www.Shapeways.com for 3D printing estimates.

3D printing vs. injection molding

Total manufacturing costs, for selected quantities from 1 – 75 units are shown above. Costs exclude design and shipping and compare injection molding (red line) and 3D printing (blue line). The major cost with injection molding is the mold, itself, which in this case, costs about $8,500. In a convenient statistical breakoff, manufacturing runs of less than 50 units yield a lower total cost than for 3D printing.  As can be seen, there are few economies of scale in printed parts, aside from perhaps amortizing design and reducing inventory costs. Unlike molding, the 75th part costs as much as to produce as the first unit. Having said this, manufacturing runs greater than 50 may also be cost effective for 3D printing when factoring in inventory/stocking costs.

What does this analysis suggest? Extremely limited volume and custom, one-off, high value parts and products will be increasingly produced with 3D printing. We can also expect that as 3D printing costs decline – as they surely will – more and more spare parts and limited production parts will be fabricated by printing. Another important cost factor not included here is that transportation costs – and carbon footprints – should be reduced. Many injection molded parts are made in China, requiring extended supply chains and logistics which are costly in both financial terms and environmental impact. Printed parts are also easier on cash flows. With greatly reduced upfront manufacturing costs, entrepreneurs can invest in products with less trepidation.

A Longer and More Winding Road to Personal 3D Printing?

A Mixed Bag of Making

I have touted the prospects for digital fabrication and more specifically the economic benefits of the additive manufacturing revolution enabled by 3D printing. Great strides have been made to bring 3D printing out of computer lab and into the R&D shop. Thousands of firms now use printers costing from $15,000 to the millions to create rapid prototypes and finished parts. But beyond the computer lab, hacker space and R&D department how does printing fare when released in the do it yourselfer’s shop?

Options for 3D Printing

While it’s quite easy to print readymade files and use fabbing service bureaus to outsource prints, my preliminary verdict from personal experience and some frustration – is that there is a ways to go yet before personal 3D modeling and printing is simple, effective and ubiquitous. I suggest the situation with 3D printing is a bit like personal computing about 30 years ago and I’ll explain why this is and what’s needed to transform the industry.

First let’s look at the Maker’s options for 3D printing assuming you don’t work in the rapid prototyping industry or a computer or fab lab type of environment that has access to experts, high end software and hardware. Let me also note that you don’t have to be creating your own models and printing them on your own printer to be involved with making. However, many, if not all creative types will at some point want to create and print their own 3D designs, if not in their own office or shop, then somewhere local that may not possess a high level of expertise.

Fabbing Options Now (also see diagram above):

  1. Existing Model Printed at Service Bureau: Find an existing free model on the Internet and send it to a fabrication service like Shapeways or Ponoko (or local fab lab) who will print and ship the finished product back to you in a couple weeks. There are thousands of models available. Presumably as the inventory of models grows there will be ones that meet many aesthetic and functional needs.
  2. Existing Model Printed Locally: As with method above download a freely available model and print it on your own printer or at a community fab lab, where you might get some help.
  3. Create Model and Print with Service Bureau: Create your own design with 3D software and send it off to a local or cloud based service bureau. This assumes your model is valid for printing. Some services like Ponoko and Shapeways are willing to help evaluate and repair a printable file for a modest upcharge or subsciption.
  4. Create Model and Print Locally: Design it and make it on your own studio/shop’s printer. I assume many makers want to do this; personal expression drives making. And this is where things get tricky.

Not Quite a Personal Factory – Yet

Wishing to investigate the personal end of 3D printing I  purchased a fully assembled Makerbot Replicator www.makerbot.com and it was delivered about a month ago. Makerbot has been the poster child for 3D printing and has been featured in dozens of publications and TV shows during the past year. The new Replicator model is a vastly improved over the version I purchased and built from a kit about two and a half years ago. I took the Replicator out of the box and printed a preloaded 3d model file from a supplied SD card in less than an hour. Alternatively, I could have downloaded a free prepared model file from the Internet (www.thingiverse.com) and printed it from the SD card that slides into the Replicator’s SD slot. Once you have a model file you don’t even need a computer to run the Replicator – an on board touch pad and LCD display the necessary menus for printing. This is all pretty easy.

But what if you want to make something of your own design? Curiosity, self expression and problem solving drives creative types and inventors They want to solve a unique need they’ve identified or express their own creativity; not just copy someone else’ model. This is where 3D printing becomes considerably more complicated. Printing a unique, freshly minted 3D design still takes considerable effort and most likely a lot of trial and error.

Is It Like 1982?

I’ve previously suggested that the current status of DIY 3D printing may be like that of the personal computer 30 years ago. In 1982 you could buy an IBM PC or an Apple but it lacked a graphic user interface and a mouse. Word processing software existed in a couple of text only applications such as Wordstar or Wordperfect and Visicalc was the only spreadsheet. Printing was a rudimentary, dot matrix affair. The introduction of the Mac in 1984 began to revolutionize the situation, with graphical user interface, mouse and well integrated word processing and other applications. We know how quickly things changed after that.

The fundamental problem with 3D printing now is that it’s not a simple process to get from the model to a printable file. The model file needs to be translated into a fully closed triangular mesh. Imagine you must represent a solid volume, your model, with many small triangular shaped pieces of paper that are cut and glued together, creating an exterior shell of your solid object or assembly. The resulting construct, called a stereolithography (stl) file, should be a “watertight” model or it can’t be parsed in many thin layers and printed.

The opportunities for holes and other errors not readily apparent to the eye become rapidly clear in such a construct when considering any shape more than a simple box or sphere. And fixing the holes can be a confounding job. I, still, have not been able to create printable files from two models of my existing portfolio, after many iterations and the deployment of a program designed explicitly to find and fix such problems. I expect more research and effort on my part will resolve the problems, but if the personal printing industry is to explode then these problems need to be addressed with innovative products.

What’s Needed

While a number of good 3D modeling applications are available, in both the paid and free categories, none I’ve come across offers a completely smooth and foolproof workflow from model creation to print file generation. Some helper applications offer model file fixes but from my experience, they still overlook issues that turn up when compiling the code (G code) instructions for the 3D printer. There’s no doubt I need to become a better modeler for 3D printing. However, the Maker world of the near future should give me the option of printing my objects as simply as sending this page to the printer.


We develop and market energy efficiency strategies and technologies. We focus on the building and transportation sectors, which account for more than two thirds of the energy budget.