3D Printing: Economies of Scale turning into Economies of Ideas

3D means a lot! One often reads that James Cameron’s movie “Avatar” was ‘the’ break-through into the 3D era. While it might have indeed started a ‘3D-revolution’ for both the whole entertainment industry and consumer markets, technologies that broke the barrier of the three-dimensional space (3D), such as Avatar’s ability to create 3D simulations on a 2D surface, are not new. The first 3D movies using color glasses released to the general public, for instance, can be traced back to as early as 1915.

As a ‘technofreak’ myself (!), I could not avoid the ‘wow effect’ when leaving the theatre after ‘Avatar’. Now, only a couple of months later, that ‘wow effect’ is an ‘oldie’. And the reason is the ‘hopefully-very-soon-to-be-on-my-desk’ 3D printing technology. Yes! You’ve read it right: 3D-printing! As much I consider myself pretty up-to-date on the latest technologies around, I was actually pretty surprise to get to know that 3D printing has been around since the early 1990’s. Only recently has the industry grown enough and prices have begun to drop, enabling this technology to get closer to us, consumers.

What is it?

The thought that computer printing is going 3D is pretty weird at first.  3D printing is a form of manufacturing technology able to transform 3D computer models into tangible objects. The ‘printing’ process consists of laying material (e.g.: plastic or metal) on a surface layer by layer. This gives the “print-out” not only the two flat dimensions as if printing on a common inkjet printer, but it adds a third dimension by the accumulation of succesive layers one on the top of the other.

Just like now we can choose between a black-and-white or color printer and between an inkjet or laser one, there are n models of 3D printers. Each uses a different types of material and outputs different printing qualities.

The Next Industrial Revolution

At the current stage, it might still be quite hard for us to capture the real impact of the 3D printing on our lives, but it certainly promisses a huge revolution in manufaturing. While nowdays business people rejoice with economies of scale, mass production might be a very costly alternative in the future. The idea is simple: Why purchase product k, designed somewhere in the US, whose pieces fly from n different cities around the globe to be finally assembled somwhere in China and then shipped back to wherever we are AND after all, get the ‘very same thing’ some other millions of people get – a standardized product? Well, the truth will, most probably, look somewhat like this:  I want product k so bad and I want it now – my way. No problem! Purchase product k‘s 3D-model online, download it, customize it – and print it!

3D printing does not only mean that the whole manufaturing process might become more personal and ever more customizable, it also means that the huge gap of time and space that currently exists between raw material and final consumer will be incredibly brought down to matters of minutes and “material cartridge” availability. In short, 3D printing will offer a cheaper and less risky path to the final consumer market.

Besides, 3D printing also encompasses huge steps in what we can call “green manufaturing”. Current manufaturing processes are the so-called subtractive manufacturing, that is, a whole portion of raw material is used to create product plus scrap. 3D printing, on the other hand, is additive, which means that exact amounts of raw material are used to create the final product, leaving no scrap behind.

Sample Applications

3D computer graphics, 3D modelling or 3D CAD (computer-aided design) are since long used by professionals such as engineers, architects, product and industrial designers, just to name a few. As wide as the applications go, the results of these applications combined with 3D printing have already started to be proved successful. Engineers and designers, for instance, have been using 3D printers for prototyping for at least a decade.

In an article by William M. Bulkeley published in the Wall Street Journal in August 2006 (Yes! 5 years ago!), he wrote:

” Toby Ringdahl, a computer-aided-design specialist at shoemaker Timberland Co., recently bought a color 3D printer from Z Corp. that allows footwear designers to see their constructions overnight rather than waiting a week for modeal-makers to carve them.”

Another example comes from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.. They use 3D printing in reconstructive surgeries involving facial prosthetics, such as noses an ears. Doctors use a 3D camera that creates a 3D map of the person’s face with the corresponding prosthetic. The mask is then printed and used as guide for the reconstructive surgery. Previously, doctors had to put plaster on the patient’s face to make the mask.

Repairing a broken product can be a painful adventure, can’t it? Well, with 3D printing, one can download the product’s broken part’s 3D model, print it and replace it.

The Future and the Inevitable Threat

While 3D printers are still limited to their sizes and cannot (still) replicate all types of parts that make up complex products, the trend indicates that portable 3D printers will be able to print all parts individually, which can be assembled aftwerwards. Once more quoting William M. Bulkeley:

“Some experts say within a few years hobbyists will have their own low-cost machines, many created by other 3D printers. Adrian Bowyer, a mechanical engineering lecturer at the University of Bath in England, says he is developing a 3D printer that, when connected to a PC, will be capable of recreating most of its own parts…”

Having laid down some highlights of 3D printing, what is is and what it can do, I hope I am not being too unsound when I say that today’s “economies of scale” will turn in tomorrow’s “economies of ideas” in manufacturing. The freedom one has today to exchange media via the internet will expand and add the ability to exchange products, or at least concepts/ideas of products and parts thereof.

Battles against the theft of intellectual property and copyrights started long ago. Today, piracy is a threat to writers and their books, singers and their music and movie-makers and their films, among others. Tomorrow, the same threat might apply to as many industries as those hit by the power of 3D printing technology – and their products. Ideas and USPs (unique selling propositions) will become ever more rapidly out-dated as we translate the real tangible world into bytes. I prefer not to go further  and rationalize on how I see the impact it all might have on the world’s economy, consumption and trade. Trying to understand it all ceteris paribus certainly leaves considerable room for error. As I am not going that far in the discussion, I am happy to close this post with a forward-looking consideration, which in fact goes back in the past to make its value. And that is: Money-making will always find its way through –  revolutionary or not, it will. Even Napster made it through by opening doors without closing its own.

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