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.