Forget where 3D Printing is Heading – Let’s Focus on Today!

Perhaps because of the extraordinary nature and potential of 3D printing, or maybe because its still such a young industry, many people are asking where the technology is most likely to take hold next.
Personal Manufacturing – A Personal Dream?

One idea being pushed around is ‘personal manufacturing’. Here the concept is that consumers will increasingly create the items they need from their own desktops. With a 3D printer in every home, so it goes, the nature of the global market will then evolve from one of globalized inter-dependency to a model that more closely resembles the self-sufficiency of an agrarian society. The only problem with this model is that it’s still far into the future. 3D printing has not yet reached the point where it can fulfill the full gamut of manufacturing roles effectively or cheaply enough to make it practical for every person in the home.
Mass Customization  – Many Challenges

The other idea that is rapidly gaining ground – and one which I believe makes more sense is ‘mass customization’, or ‘product personalization’. With some noticeable attempts in fields such as sporting goods (personalized golf clubs is a noted example in the previous link), and clothing (Levi’s Jeans), the mass customization market is a response to the changing times we live in. From the one side, its being driven by consumers who now demand more. From the other, mass customization is a response to increasing global competition – where manufacturers will do almost anything to maintain and grow their market share and keep their customers coming back.

There are of course, a number of challenges to mass customization becoming mainstream tomorrow. Joe Flaherty over at the ‘Replicator’ blog nicely summarizes these, with many of his points boiling down to psychological and social barriers that we may or may not eventually overcome.
Where 3D Printing Can Really Make a Difference

While both these trends can be debated and plans for the future envisioned, there still remains the here and now, today. Many countries are facing current or future economic challenges. President Obama is now talking openly about a possible American default by August 2nd unless the debt ceiling is raised yet again.

According to pundits such as Peter Schiff, many of these problems can be attributed to a lack of real productive output. Simply put, advanced economies are not making and selling enough real products. And of those that they do make, they are not efficient or to a high enough standard to be able to compete. Hence ‘too big to fail’ and Quantitive Easing. Beginning to sound familiar?

Here, I believe is where 3D printing can really make the difference. 3D printing, perhaps more than anything else, is a tool for delivering a faster turnaround from design to production. 3D printing is about improving the cost to quality ratio of the end products themselves. And until now, manual prototyping was the major chink in the chain – the only part of the production process that hadn’t yet joined the automation age. CAD took care of the design stage and CAM has taken care of the production stage. Prototyping was the latest to catch up (maybe we should call it CAP for Computer aided Prototyping?!).

Enabling Better Mass Production
With notable and important exceptions such as digital dentistry and in the medical device industry, more important than fabricating any one-off customized part, is the ability to improve the efficiency and quality of mass produced goods. Inkjet-based 3D printing technology represents the most realistic means for modeling and testing new and innovative off-the-shelf products.

With such a technology at their fingertips, product designers and engineers can now literally fly through prototyping cycles that used to take weeks or even months. And with more efficient and effective prototyping, not only do you get lower costs, but you can also afford the time and effort to create a better end-product.

This is the potential of 3D printing and this is where we should be focusing our efforts today – in improving the competitiveness of classic industries such as cars, defense, consumer goods, consumer electronics and more. And judging by Obama’s speech and events in Greece, it wouldn’t be a moment too late.

Comments

  1. Helo :-)
     
    You say: <The only problem with this model is that it’s still far into the future. 3D printing has not yet reached the point where it can fulfill the full gamut of manufacturing roles effectively or cheaply enough to make it practical for every person in the home.>
    What exactly do you mean by the " far into the future " and " or cheaply enough" ?
    I mean the future is here…
    For less than 500 USD it is possible to source parts necessary to build a 3D printer that is able to print parts that is usable straight from the build plate. ABS and PLA parts is more  than strong enough to be used in your own household and even you can print parts that your friend needs to build his/her own printer… Abs is the same material Lego is made of so it will last for ages.
    The only thing that is left to do in the work of getting "3Dprinters in "all homes" now, is as far as i can see, to spread the word >>RepRap<<. 
    One other thing is that ABS and PLA needs to be more available but that availability will expand together with the expansion of 3D printer count i guess.
     
    If all the parts for a printer is "on the table" it is no problem for an average intelligent 15 year old to put it together and make it work in a few days. 
    AND… when this expands my guess is: the BIG electronics manufacturers will open their eyes and then be able/willing to make and sell FFF (FDM) printers closer to 400 USD ready to use(P&P)

    • Sam Green says:

      Hi Roy – All your points are true, of course, but apart from printing rudimentary plastic cutlery and containers it still seems like a large effort for a small return. While building a $500 printer may be a useful summer project for a 15 year-old, that’s certainly not incentive enough for most people and most homes. Like I said, the scope of the 3D printing has to improve to the point where it becomes worthwhile and yet feasible for more people. For example, I would imagine a home 3D printer worthwhile where it prints you a pair of functioning glasses, complete with transparent (working) lenses, rigid ABS-like frames and rubber over-molded nose and ear-supports (saving you an expensive trip to the optician). Such a printer would also be able to print you some fantastic quality artwork for your lounge – reproduced in a combination of glass-like transparent and opaque shades, or it could print you a particular size chair that you couldn’t find in the shops, with an ABS-like frame and foam-like seat combining strenght and comfort. Such technology does already exist – especially if you are using inkjet-based multi-material 3D printing – but it’s still going to take time before such technology becomes accessible for every home.

  2. Hello Sam.
     
    I see YOUR point… but MY point is…
    We can not "sit on the fence" and wait for THAT technology you describe here to become economically accessible for a normal family budget.. It is going to take too long due to patented methods i guess…
    When there is open source methods/hardware to to the same things you describe here… THEN it will become accessible  to us "normal" people.
    I have to disagree(well at least partly) in your statement of that "my 500 USD" printer is not incentive  enough for most people. 
    Economically i have earned back all the money i have used on my printer. One guy actually saved 500USD on printing a 15 gram abs part for his car. I have printed and sold parts needed to build other printers to other people, printed curtain hooks, coffee filter holder, jewelery boxes wall holder for flashlights and tools, knobs and loads of other useful stuff to be used at home and this for the cost of 3mm ABS welding rod. All this is things i otherwise would have payed a lot more for in the shops… The only thing that is needed is to make people see how easy it is to do this…
    The more people that have "my kind" of printer, the more designs will be   accessible on line + the chances for that innovative people invent more advanced technology and publish this as open source will be bigger..
      :-)

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