3D Printing: Science fiction might just drive you out of business

Science fiction isn’t what it used to be anymore. What used to be science fiction is now part of our everyday lives and while most aspects of this change are positive, it could have a profound impact on many businesses.

Over the past several years 3D printing technology has developed to the point where we can now start to see references to it in the news, regularly. When it was first developed it was, as is the case with most technologies, very expensive. This limited the use of the technology to very specific situations such as modeling and prototyping products which would later be manufactured through a more traditional process.

A few years back, however, the first “inexpensive” desktop 3D printers came out and spawned a whole community of enthusiasts. In addition, they started to nudge the imagination of entrepreneurs in the direction of wondering how the technology would evolve and which new businesses it could bring about. It is now possible for you to find a 3D model of your liking online and order a complete printed product to be delivered to your door. One company that is empowering this movement is called Shapeways. They are an online marketplace where 3D model creators can offer their designs and consumers can order. Shapeways will then 3D print these objects on demand and have them delivered directly to the customer.

(Above: 3D printed lamp available from Thingiverse.)

A company called MakerBot hosts a community site called Thingiverse.com in which designers are encouraged to share their models of objects such as the lamp shown above. (Check out other impressive 3D printed lamp designs.)

While the number of companies implementing this kind of business model is still small, it will probably grow rapidly as the technology continues getting better and cheaper at an ever increasing pace. Now, imagine the impact this will have, not just on the consumer who will be able to order some products which weren’t previously and easily available, such as spare parts for older, no longer produced equipment. What will the impact be on the whole supply chain for manufacturers when you no longer need to produce small plastic parts in China, but can have them locally printed? What will the impact be on freight carriers when you don’t have to ship manufactured goods around the planet, but can instead have them delivered from a local printing center? What about warehousing for all the inventory that you no longer need to have, when goods can be printed on demand?

These changes can seem a bit alarming, and they certainly should be for those that are in those businesses and who are not taking them into consideration, but they will bring huge benefits for humanity in general. The waste and pollution involved in manufacturing will be greatly reduced. The carbon footprint for transportation will also be drastically reduced from what  it is now.

All that doesn’t take into consideration the convenience of not having to replace your dinning set because you broke a cup or a plate and you cannot find a replacement. Besides being convenient, it will have an impact on the manufacturers of such goods. What about not being restricted to the options offered by the manufacturer and actually being able to design your own dinning set? When we start to consider these possibilities we start to see a new pattern emerge for manufacturing. It is a distributed pattern with smaller production centers, which will really be no more than printing centers, placed close to consumers instead of large industrial complexes with dozens of factories.

All of this might still seem like science fiction to you, but if you stop to consider the advancements made in the field of 3D printing over just a few short years and add it up to the advancement in computer technology, there can be little doubt that all of this will come to be over the next years. Not only are these the logical extrapolations of the current path of technology development but they offer considerable advantage to consumers as well as having a markedly smaller impact on the environment than current production methods, while reducing costs. What this means is that it really doesn’t matter if the companies currently working on the production of such goods don’t want to adopt this model because of their current vested interests. If they don’t do it, other companies will and will force them to either adapt or disappear.

Further into the future, we may well reach a point in which we will only need local manufactures to produce physically large goods and that everything else you will be able to print at home, with your own printer. Imagine (if you are old enough to have seen this) that today’s 3D printers are the equivalent of the first impact printers and consider how far we are today from an old desktop dot matrix printers. Today anyone can have access to photo-quality desktop printing with inkjet or even laser technology.

Long before we reach the stage in which we do most of our product printing at home, most companies will no longer be in the market of selling you physical goods. They will be in the market of selling you the “blueprints” for those products along with a “license” for the printing of x number of copies. When the need to have costly equipment, facilities and warehousing is removed we will probably see a huge flourishing of design companies focused on innovating in form and function in ways that simply weren’t possible before.

(Above: 3D printed electric guitar from Odd Guitars)

While they are expensive for most common people, desktop 3D printers are already empowering designers to a lot of objects which would be impossible to manufacture with traditional methods or which would have required mass production in order to be economically viable as a product. Some of the companies that are active in this space are: FormLabs, MakerBot and gCreate. As more players join in, we should increasingly see products which are increasingly more intricate and complex in design, such as the electric guitar shown above.  This is one of a whole range of different designs that are available to choose from online. An interesting aspect of the 3D printing process is that added complexity in the design of the product does not significantly affect the time and effort to produce it.

While of this would already be impressive and quite enough to make the case that 3D printing will be a highly disruptive and transformative technology, there is more.  A lot more, in fact.  Several companies are making advances in the creation of huge 3D printers that can be used to print the entire structure of a house or apartment building.  Some experiments are based on the layering of concrete, while others use innovative materials and unconventional design.

At the same time others are experimenting with printing  organs, using living cells. Great progress has already been made in the creation of prosthetics through 3D printing, helping to drive down costs and make them more easily available to those that ar in need of them.  When all of this is considered, the mind boggles at all the possibilities for the improvement of living conditions and life expectancy that these technologies may bring us.

Until a few years ago, all of this was no more than science fiction.  Now?  It’s all science fact, though it might still be a couple of years away from being ubiquitous. It’s possible we may be closer to the day we will have Star Trek’s replicators than we are to when color inkjet printers became ubiquitous themselves.

Is your organization ready for all these changes?

Originally published on LinkedIn on January 19th.

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