Out of all the fascinating and disruptive technologies that are emerging, 3D printing has garnered a significant amount of attention.
Some wax lyrical about the endless applications it will have in engineering, architectural and manufacturing spheres, while others feel that it’s overhyped and that it will be decades before the capabilities actually match the sales pitch.
Yet, given that we are at a stage where we can print missing body parts, replicate great works of art, rebuild cities, and even buy a 3D printer from Officeworks, perhaps it’s wiser not to underestimate its potential and the impact it will have on industries in the future.
3D printing has the potential to be a game-changer; and not just for the aforementioned high-end applications. It is projected that in just a few short years, we will see small organisations be able to harness the technology in a way that will disrupt the current business model.
So where is the technology at? What are its current limits? And what will the implications be for the everyday business?
Where is 3D printing at?
The applications for 3D printing technology have come a long way in the decades since its inception. However, it’s only been in the last few years that the technology has developed to an extent where its size and price have made their applications more widespread.
And these applications are widespread. More and more organisations are able to harness the technology. For example in the aviation and health spheres Terry Wohlers, the president of the independent consulting firm Wohlers Associates notes:
‘The aviation industry has more than 22,000 printed parts flying right now, and people are walking on 3D printed orthopedic implants. These are very regulated, very demanding industries and these parts are performing well.’
In fact, 3D printing is already having a significant impact on the medical industry. Medical experts are now developing skin transplants for burn victims, tissues, organs and Princeton University is even developing a bionic ear, which has not only replicated the human one, but they have given it extended capabilities, beyond the human experience.
What are the limits of 3D printing?
Yet despite all the advancements, the technology still has quite a few limitations. Even though it’s more widely distributed, there is a perception that you just hit ‘control p’ and before you can say ‘Darth Vader’s helmet’, you can have one of your own in your living room
Yet actually using a 3D printer is not that easy, not that fast and certainly not that cheap.
According to Gizmodo, you will need to learn CAD in order to operate the 3D printing systems. And yes the prices are cheaper, but the range of materials that you print with are still more expensive than source materials (the cheapest material is $50 per kg, ranging up to $500 for some resins).
And you can’t microwave some soup while waiting for your glorious creation to emerge whole from the printer. Even simple figures can take hours to print, and most of the materials you can buy (if you have the money) you won’t be able to print in your home or office, because some materials like resin are very messy and can produce a lot of waste, while others, such as plastic and metal are incredibly dangerous because of the high temperatures involved in the process.
So in order for the 3D printer to become, well, like a home printer, there is still a way to go.
What is the potential of 3D printing?
Yet there is little doubt that the technology will get there — and quickly. 3D printing has peaked on the Technology Hype Cycle and is expected to become mature in 2-5 years, particularly in the medical field, but also in manufacturing. If this is the case, then this will have a number of implications.
Technology Hype Cycle — 3D printing
The implications for businesses
It is predicted that 3D printing will completely disrupt the traditional business model — if a consumer has access to bespoke printing then the traditional rigamarole of retail becomes redundant.
We are already seeing how this might play out.
A company in New York called Makerbot has traditionally sold printers, but has recently expanded to include 3D products as well. An online company called Shapeways lets customers order bespoke products. You can get drone parts, homewares, even wedding ring in your desired metal printed to order via their website.
If more business adopt this model, it will completely change the retail landscape; if all you need to do in order to get a bespoke product is to send your desired specs to the printing shop, then stores won’t need a shop-front to keep the products, packaging, surplus stock, which will cut down on overheads dramatically, allowing a business to be very agile.
It will also allow agility in design and prototyping. We are already at a stage where rapid prototyping has developed to the extent where instead of taking a month to create a prototype, creators are taking merely 3-4 days. This is particularly good news for small businesses. As 3D printing entrepreneur Rick Smith says:
‘Smaller companies will reap great benefit from this technology, introducing innovative products without huge inventory expense.’
This agility also means that companies will also be able to get their product to their customer much more quickly providing them with a highly customised experience at the fraction of the cost.
The future of 3D printing
Even though the concept of 3D printing seems very high-end, we are starting to get a very good understanding of how it is going to affect every aspect of manufacturing and retail. It doesn’t just have the capacity to disrupt business, but to transform the world.
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