3D printers are not a new technology, they’ve been used for prototyping by large companies and the military for years. But coming soon will be 3D printing technology that allows people to “print” many objects in their household. If everyone is manufacturing many objects that are typically manufactured in China, what are the economic implications? Will this just be something that hobbyists continue to use, or will it be on everyone’s desks? Dr. Banning Garrett, Director of the Asia Program at the Atlantic Council and co-author of the recently published report “Could 3D Printing Change the World?” talked about this extremely disruptive technology in an interview, and he said we’ve only scratched the surface of its potential.
The possibilities for what can be created with 3D printers are infinite, as long as the object is within the resolution of the printer and made of the material the printer uses. Makerbot debuted the Makerbot Replicator 3D printer in January, which is now available for $1700. Makerbot was founded in 2009, and since then they’ve expanded their 3D printing capabilities from the size of a cupcake to the size of a loaf of bread. They focus on personalized manufacturing, and have a community for their hobbyists at Thingiverse.
While the Makerbot printer is aimed at consumers looking to print school projects or toys, there are industrial design implications for larger 3D printers. They remove the need to think about whether the standard production line can meet the requirements for a specific product. Boeing is printing titanium landing gear and even wings, and Dr. Garrett said three percent of the parts on a Boeing 757 are now printed. Medical companies are even using 3D printers to build replacement human body parts. While printers are very far away from being able to manufacture an entire iPhone or pair of headphones on a single printer, single parts can be printed for these complex devices. Instead of the U.S. Navy carrying around hundreds of spare parts they keep a large 3D printer and some smaller materials. If a bolt or nut is needed, it can be printed in a couple hours.
How products are designed fundamentally changes with 3D printers. “The key thing about it is that anything you can design, you can print,” Garrett said. It may seem this is already possible, but Garrett points out that products have to be built based on the tools available to build the parts. “Your design choices are strictly limited by what your machines can make. There are so many complex shapes that you simply can’t make with machine tools, or if you did it would be extremely expensive.” A factory machine does have the benefit of performing one task very efficiently. All consumer 3D printers on the market take hours to make a ball, something a factory machine could produce in seconds. But a ball with spikes? It would only be feasible to create if 10,000 were made.
Think of the example of needing a spare part for a washing machine. After a few years of it being available it becomes very difficult to find a replacement part, which ends up being very expensive. It simply doesn’t make sense for the company to mass produce the parts anymore. With a 3D printer, printing one or 10,000 units has the same cost. Just simply download the blueprint and have it made in your house. It doesn’t matter if the part is so obscure that it hasn’t been produced for years. “A printer can print any item within its parameters, every time you use it you can build a different thing. There’s no penalty every time you change and there’s no penalty for uniqueness,” Garrett said.
The way Dr. Banning Garrett sees it in the near future is thousands of hobbyists will have these machines in their homes, designing and building anything. The hobbyists will tinker around with their creations and share them with the community online, some of them creating hit products which everyone will use. “You’re getting a lot of items that are being printed for use in serious technology products like airplanes, then you also have the experimentation.” He compares the current situation to the 1980s when a select few were making computer programs. “It’s more the people who can brave the learning curve. You’re seen that go on now with the thousands of people getting 3D printers, sharing software, printing designs, fixing it and improving it,” Garrett notes.
Garrett also brings up one of the huge effects of 3D printers: causing decentralization of product manufacturing. “You’re producing very near, if not at the consumer’s home,” he said. Decentralization not only provides the consumer with the product faster than shipping it out from a country like China, but also results in tremendous environmental benefits. The current model involves taking materials and parts from several places all into one assembly line and manufacturing them, then shipping them out by the millions to markets around the world. “They’re consumed in all 192 countries, but they all have to be shipped there. In the ‘New World’ you’ll be sending around the file, containing the specifications for a product, just like a PDF,” he said. Products only need to be created on demand, when the market wants them. “There’s no need to speculate on how many products will be used and then have a lot of them thrown away.”
Shapeways has already created a flourishing online market for 3D products. Users can design something themselves and have Shapeways print it for them, or purchase one of their 3D designs. Customers can pay anywhere from $1 to $1500, with pricing different for every item based on the amount and type of materials used for the product. The Pirate Bay already jumped on this opportunity and has created a section for 3D goods, opening up a new channel for piracy.
Downloading these blueprints will fundamentally change the retail world, but won’t eliminate the need for physical stores. Besides the fact consumers will always want the experience of interacting with a product before they purchase it, the printers that consumers will have at home will not be of the same capacity as the one at the store or centre serving a largely populated area. A hardware store may have one large printer capable of printing any nut and bolt on the spot. “You’ll have your home printers where you can just download what you want and print it at home. You’ll have centres that produce products for medium range consumers. Going to a hardware store means having them print out the wrench you want,” Garrett said.