3D printers are supposed to be the next big thing in technology innovation. Some people go as far as saying they will initiate a third industrial revolution. Surely they will completely change business and product innovation. The following are my thoughts and reflections on how the future might look like.
3D printers - current applications
Commercial uses of 3D printers include among others medicine (I have got a false tooth made by a 3D printer), art, design, architecture, and engineering.
But also private users are having more and more access to 3D printers. You can buy your own 3D printer for around 300 EUR. People can already design and produce their own jewellery, toys or other household items.
How will 3D printers change business?
Nowadays you have product development, production, marketing, and distribution. In order to exploit economies of scale in the production process it is desirable to have a market for the product that is sufficiently large enough. Certain products might be innovative but unfortunately never be launched if there is no market. Once the product has been produced it is delivered to the distributor or the end customer.
3D printers will change this traditional setup over time. Product developers will be able to sell directly to the customer. Customers will download a file and 3D print (=produce) the product at their company or home. I could buy a coffee cup design online and print it at my home. Distribution and logistics might become less relevant. There is no more need for me to go to the local department store and browse the offer of coffee cups. Does this mean that retailers or consumer goods companies will disappear over time? Certainly not from one day to the next but remember that many music labels ceased to exist once everyone started downloading music from the internet. Delivery and logistics going forward will mainly focus on the transport of raw materials for 3D printers (so far mainly plastic, metal or wood). Economies of scale will be less relevant because you have les fixed costs (for example you do not have to produce a mould for production). This means you can produce one item or thousands of items at approximately the same cost. Even products with only a small market might then be launched. Less economies of scale imply there is less incentive to outsource production to cheap labour countries. These countries (especially emerging markets) might suffer from job cuts as a result. In return there might be additional jobs for highly skilled peole, for instance in product design, software development or engineering.
What does that mean for innovation?
Product research and development will be much more participative through 3D printers. As more and more people have access to 3D printers and learn how to deal with the software everyone will be able to design and produce their own products. Maybe one day I will have my own self-designed tennis racket or even computer. Those will be my individual products, completely free of any industry standard. I might exchange ideas with my friends on new products. This - potentially global - community of product developers will produce lots of new ideas through its mere size, its interactive nature will further boost the innovation process and make it faster. Having ideas and realizing them instantly will be the main focus, more than the pursuit of profits or market share.
Product innovation will be for everyone and everywhere. Designers will experience the possibility to share their ideas globally, without having to travel or without shipping costs. Imagine me as a European client buying a pair of sunglasses from an innovative Latin American designer. I can buy the print file online and print them at my home. I could even scan, modify and reproduce them if I find that I want another size, colour, etc. Global product dispersion will be facilitated and inspire new products beyond the barriers of space and time.
3D printing will decrease production fixed costs. That means even products which meet a comparatively small market demand might be launched (less fixed costs implies less importance of economies of scale). Hence more innovational products will meet the client and companies will be more daring. Maybe some of these products will be successful after a while and prove marketing forecasts wrong. Then you can still increase the lot size without significant additional effort.
The participative nature, the global range, the instant nature and the decreasing costs mean that we will see an incredibly rapid flow of inspirations and ideas thanks to 3D printing.
What else will change?
3D printers make production more efficient because they produce less waste. This saves raw materials and will disburden the environment. On the other hand it could be that total production volumes will increase and therefore more raw material will be consumed.
Hand in hand with the dispersion of 3D printers goes the growing use of 3D scanners. You can already scan products and reproduce them on a 3D printer. This makes it easier to copy intellectual property. Imagine I could buy the print file of a new bottle opener. I could 3D print it, scan it and create my own print file which I would sell to a global community of possible clients. One of the challenges of 3D printing will be how to control / charge / prohibit the download and dispersion of print files. Also it is not clear what will happen if everyone will be able to produce their own weapons.
The future of 3D printing
What will we be able to do with 3D printers in the future? It seems that the barriers between natural and artificial material will disappear over time. It is being claimed that we will be able to print parts of the human body (heart valves or even a kidney), food, but also computers or cars. The bravest statement claims that one day one will be able to print a human person.