Future Implications of Three D Printing

by mcampbell on December 6, 2012

Cooler than cool. Few things on the tech scene fascinate me more than three dimensional printing.

 

If you are unfamiliar with the technology, 3D printing allows for the creation of real world objects, layer by layer, from a digital model. What have they made with this technology? They have created plastic toys, metal artwork, sand industrial molds, concrete structural components,  titanium jaw replacements, and live organs (although these are still largely under development). The digital models can originate as electronic designs or from 3D scans.

 

Three dimensional printing has the potential to re-write the current rules of manufacturing:

1) As production is far less dependent on labor, shipping may be the primary cost that manufacturers actively seek to avoid. If correct, we will see a geographical shift in manufacturing to locations with easy access to raw materials and power and/or to their primary markets (sorry China …). This won’t increase the job figures in the west much; although increasingly powerful printing technologies may cause a boom in manufacturing, there is little reason that they will cause a corresponding boom in labor demand. It may actually decrease it.

2) The value of the object will be almost totally dependent on the design. If the design can be restricted as intellectual property (copyright and patent), the product will have high value. Otherwise, with open source designs or stolen designs, the product will be accessible to anyone with a capable 3D printer. Design curation will become a lucrative business. This will include storing, distributing, selling, and consulting on digital models.

3) Manufacturing will be less tied to investment. If good commercial products can be made without a large expenditure on equipment, labor, and space, then manufacturing may start to resemble the software industry … successful companies can appear out of nowhere. In the future, it may be profitable to produce low cost, low volume goods as the overhead in switching the manufacturing process between products becomes negligible.

 

A couple points:

1) These printers are not as expensive as you imagine. A small printer capable of producing plastic objects in multiple colors can be acquired for under $2000.

2) Some printers can print objects complete with moving parts … no assembly required. Printed clothing is also starting to appear.

2) There have been innovations in materials and printer technologies that allow for the printing of electrically conductive components. This is still in its infancy, but it means that they will someday be able to print electronic objects … including brand new 3D printers? (See http://www.3dprinter.net/carbomorph-3d-printing-conductive-materials)

 

(Just for fun, check out the prop that they printed for the movie “Skyfall”: http://www.3dprinter.net/spoiler-bonds-old-aston-martin-is-a-new-3d-print. Props today, functional automobiles tomorrow. So much for exclusivity … I think I’ll print mine in British Racing Green)

 

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