In the past 5 years there has been a huge swing in the popularity of 3D printers in the startup, maker and hobbyist communities. With the release of the Reprap – the first ever self-replicating ‘manufacturing’ machine – and Makerbot, thousands of 3D printers have followed to fundamentally change the world and face of the hardware revolution.
3D printing’s most obvious benefit would be its ability to rapidly prototype an idea. Taking lead time from weeks to hours has changed the capital and time cost of prototyping a product. So far, the results have been profound. Never before have you been able to “compile” your project to real life. Ideas are becoming a real thing with the click of a button. With more iterations comes faster innovation.
Access and affordability to the masses
With Open Source 3D printers hitting the market, the price to own a printer has dropped an order of magnitude, making it actually practical to have your own prototyping machine. Just like when the printer (the regular paper variety) became a household item, 3D printers are changing the mindset of what you can do on your own. This is everything from making hard-to-order parts to an army of toy soldiers. Or building your own house. Some Dutch architects have already started the first 3D printed house in Amsterdam!
Open source industrial design
Think grabCAD and Thingiverse. Communities of designers have flourished from the plummeting cost of having something printed in conjunction with the explosion of free and open designs. Much like early open software libraries, open CAD models are making industrial design a collaborative industry where new products are freely created, while repetitive designs are crowd-sourced.
Manufacturing closer to home
The advantage of manufacturing in Asia is price. With the drop in equipment cost and minimal need for human interaction, the value gap is steadily closing. In the coming years, expect industrial manufacturing to move closer to where it is actually designed and being sold.
What’s next? 5 industries to be widely disrupted
The way we design and build electronics has already changed and will continue to evolve a tremendous amount: Printing circuit boards at home, not relying on an obscure manufacturer in China, etc. But other verticals will benefit from the technology and many of them have already started using it at a wide scale.
Anything that exists in liquid or powder form can now be printed. That translates to around 75% of the ingredients that are most commonly used in industrial food supply chains today. Next Christmas, sales guys will 3D print chocolates and send them to their best clients (if they haven’t already started). Soon, making kids eat their veggies will not be an issue as their meals will be shaped like their favorite superhero. Disruption it is!
- Health / Medicine
Taking 3D printers and combining it with other sciences is really, really cool. Take an emerging technology and combine it with leading edge science and you get magic: 3D printed organs and the first 3D printed skull… enough said.
When you’re stuck in an isolated place where FedEx can’t deliver the replacement parts you need for the Apache, printing them on-site will be the fastest and cheapest way to move on. Roger that.
On the flip side, the fact that 3D printed guns became a reality is probably one of the most scary consequence of the printers’ spread. And the first gun that was made – the Liberator – is both dangerous when it works and when it doesn’t.
Remember as a kid when you thought about all the cool upgrades you could apply to your toys? Kids won’t have to experience this frustration of never being able to play with a Spiderman action figure that wears a green cape, has a black horse, and a huge laser gun.
They will just download open source models, modify them and 3D print them. Broken? No tears. Just press Cmd+P!
I was on the phone with Don Carli the other day and we talked about 3D printing applications to the automotive industries. He told me BMW was already doing it, which surprised me a little, but it makes a lot of sense. Bentley also 3D prints small and very complex parts for their new models.
Changing the way manufacturing is done will benefit a number of different industries as well as economies . They will no doubt become faster and more agile as 3D printing becomes more precise and affordable.