Knowledgeable people sometimes question the role of Chattanooga’s gigabit network in the industrial renaissance. And with good reason: they are correct about file size being small compared to other files currently transported over today’s infrastructure. But we must be in touch with the vision of things to come is – because that is the essence of Chattanooga’s entrepreneurial instincts. Chattanooga’s Smart Grid awakened us to a new digital age that is being born right here. We are beginning to connect with other cities, and we are beginning to connect the digital to the physical, computation to manufacturing.

Last year, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times:

Big bandwidth, combined with 3-D printers, would also allow for the rapid prototyping of all kinds of manufactured products that can then be made anywhere.

Months later, he spoke to a sold-out gathering here in Chattanooga, followed by another NYT article:

There is a huge amount of innovative thrust building, bottom-up. … Chattanooga replaced its belching smokestacks with an Amazon.com fulfillment center, major health care and insurance companies and a beehive of tech start-ups that all thrive on big data and super-high-speed Internet.

And then there’s the CBS This Morning segment that aired nationally in March about Chattanooga’s re-invention as Gig City. While filming, the production crew saw a 3D printer for the first time and aired a segment on Fabricators and 3D printing from their studios three days after the Chattanooga piece. A media visit to Chattanooga resulted in a piece about 3D printing: that speaks volumes.

Friedman and CBS laid out the mass media dots; now we are connecting the dots to Chattanooga’s gigabit story. There are several forces indicating that bandwidth and digital speed will become more important, even critical, in the future.

  1. Simply taking the now-ubiquitous concepts of Just in Time manufacturing to a logical, feasible and foreseeable practical limit over the next decade will require network capacity and, perhaps more importantly, responsiveness and speed. The gigabit network we have is twitch fast. Clusters of machines working in concert in communities – which is not a far-fetched vision – will require less software mediation, reducing job latency. Ultra high-speed networks can use a different approach that is more peer-to-peer than packet-switched.
  2. The resolution of the installed base of 3D printers is approaching the single-digit micron level, while the installed base’s build volumes continue to expand. As a result, the size of the files, and the number of files transported, will grow, leading to an increase in speed and capacity.
  3. As the capability and complexity of distributed micro-manufacturing jobs grows, it will become essential for each component’s model involved in the manufacturing process to have knowledge of the whole. The intellectual references underpinning this supposition reside in the way more organic structures are encoded. Component models will need to carry information about the whole model with them. The files describing the component will naturally and exponentially increase in size.

Irrespective of these points, 3D manufacturing will follow the pattern of the cycles of innovation that have come before it — not just in recent years, but since the beginning of time. New capabilities find their uses; applications emerge from platforms in the most unexpected and unpredictable ways; and world-changing, wonderful new powers become part of our everyday life.

– Mike Bradshaw, CO.LAB Co-director, GIGTANK Entrepreneur-in-Residence