3D printing is at a phase where it is still mostly used in behind-the-scenes, industrial capacities. It’s entry into the mainstream marketplace has yet to be seen for what it is: a major disruption to manufacturing and distribution. But it is one of the industries most primed for major growth. In fact, the University of Illinois at Chicago listed it as one of the technologies poised for growth, requiring attention to how we manage major advancements. Don’t get me wrong, I think this disruption is good, just like the computer was disruptive to the typewriter industry, or how the car disrupted the horse and buggy industry. What doesn’t seem to be understood, however, are the enormous implications of 3D printing and how it will change the world.
How 3D Printing Is The Next Disruptive Technology
The new 3D printers currently hold the status of cool, as in it’s cool that I can print out a toy soldier, but they are still in the phase of development that the dot matrix printers were in when they were at the pinnacle of paper printing. In order to understand its disruption, however, we must look at how we currently get our toy soldiers along with other things. A typical item, like a toy soldier is made in a factory, probably in a country where wages are low. The workers operate machinery and work in production lines to supply these toys. Once the toy is complete, it is packaged, using manufactured packaging, then stored in a large warehouse awaiting shipping. Then it is shipped, using all modes of transportation: trucks, trains, planes and boats. Eventually it is put on a store shelf for sale or put in a warehouse to be sold to online consumers.
If you have a 3D printer, you simply scan or upload a diagram of the item you want, detail it with software, and print. All of the above methods of manufacturing and delivery are circumvented. This becomes more relevant as 3D printers become better, faster, cheaper and the materials used to print expand. Cleverly enough, this will probably happen fast, because, among other things, we can 3D print 3D printers, making the iteration processes to improve the products simple and easy.
Part of what gets disrupted is the concept of specialization premiums. Our economy works, not on a one-size-fits-all, basis, but on a most-sizes-closely-fit-most-people model. Shoes are made with half-inch variations, not custom. A 3D printer could change that though, printing a sole for your foot. Then extend the analogy to a prosthetic device. The same issue of standardization versus customization applies, but this actually becomes your appendage, and variability is not welcome.
Or take what seems like a simple device, the bike wheel, and compare the costs of varying brands. The range is amazing. But if you can 3D print your wheel, there is no reason to sacrifice quality based on price. Print the wheel from the materials, with the spoke pattern you want. No markup. No premium for high performance. Just the cost of the material. The same is true for many things. Simply put, when we have the power to custom produce at our fingertips, specialty is no longer a premium.
One giant implication is that we often don’t do what we need to do as a society because it’s expensive. 3D printing will allow us to do things, like manufacture space station parts in space or locally produce solar panels or print out inexpensive houses for the poor and displace or simply create our own smartphone covers. The list is endless and so are the implications.
There is a company in China that is 3D printing 10 houses a day. These houses take about 3 hours to assemble and they are made of recycled materials. The houses cost around $5000, making affordable housing a reality. And because customization is done with software, people can create the homes of their dreams without the constraints of mass-produced details of the home, like window or door sizes. Each part can be specially designed and created without extraordinary effort, expense and virtually no waste.
One of the most fascinating implications is how 3D printing is impacting the medical industry. As I mentioned it improves the ability to customize prosthetics, but it might even make that obsolete before it really takes hold. Bio-printing is becoming a reality. Bio printing is the ability to print out tissue onto biofilm that allows for organs and other body parts to be grown. By doing this, we could become our own organ donors, assuring tissue and blood type matches. This not only revolutionizes how medical treatment can be delivered, it disrupts the black market demand for organs.
Ultimately, 3D printing creates a whole new delivery system which will disrupt legacy models of commerce and medicine. Perhaps most importantly, it changes the ways we consume products. Customization will be normal and not specialized and there will be little need for inferior products because they have better price points. This will certainly create some chaos as old methods wind down, but eventually, the power of manufacturing and delivery will be in hands of nearly everyone.