3D Printing: How Soon and How Big?

Recently, 3D printing has become a big topic in Silicon Valley because of the rise of “boutique manufacturing”, which combines engineering and IT design skills in new ways.  Desktop 3D printers from Mojo and ThingLab have stirred the imaginations of hobbyists, developers and researchers alike:  http://binged.it/VYT9BI; http://binged.it/UYjfpt

Are these just hobbyist toys or will they revolutionize business and society as visionaries believe?   The truth is somewhere in-between.  Short-term, 3D printers will probably be limited to leading-edge ventures, researchers and other early adopters, just as the PC and desktop publishing were during the 1980s.  However, over time 3D will go mainstream, especially if Apple developers introduce 3D design templates and apps. 

What does this 3D printing future look like?  How soon will it be? 

As Wikipedia notes, 3D printing is already used in a few early adopters in jewelry, footwear, industrial design, architecture, engineering and construction (AEC), automotive, aerospace, dental and medical industries, education, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many other fields.  Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/3D_printing

To see examples, use Google and Bing image search for 3D printing. 

The early applications are rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing.  In December 2012, at a Silicon Valley Innovation Institute program (www.svii.net), a local designer from Ponoko showed a variety of artificial legs created using 3D printers, including designer legs with mesh designs.  http://blog.ponoko.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/deb_5527_FPO_0.jpg 

Among hobbyists, ornaments, gears, coat hooks and other simple designs are common. But software is rapidly enabling more complex designs.  The open source Fab@Home project has developed printers for general use and , as Wikipedia notes, research into advanced applications is moving fast. 

My friend Steve Naegele raises an interesting question in his blog.  What about rapid copying?   How can designers protect their 3D designs from piracy?   http://naegeledesign.com/emptypageblog/

As I mention in his blog, I think copyright and patent laws will be extended to 3D printing.  Designers could submit their files, which would be checked by users by accessing 3D design databases via smartphones.  Like chip designers today, designers could embed secret codes or design mistakes into their files as a way to catch copycats.  There would be no guarantee that this will protect 3D designers, just as designers are quickly copied today, but at least the legal framework is in place under WTO and international copyright laws. 

So how will 3D printing affect you and your family?  We may see a 3D printing boom, just like the desktop publishing boom, during the next decade.  Many entrepreneurs will build businesses around 3D printing services. Your kids will print out their own toys (Lego will make a fortune!). Small printers and manufacturers will install 3D printers to make and distribute popular products, with authorized dealers selling Star Wars, Spiderman and other franchise toys and accessories.  Instead of storing and shipping products, toymakers and other consumer companies will set up local 3D printing centers worldwide, run by subsidiaries or franchisees, to beat competitors to the market. The Christmas season, which is currently a huge bottleneck for gift manufacturers, will be where companies make huge profits since it will reduce their time-to-market, shipping and storage overhead, and marketing costs.  They would shift from produce-in-advance to print-on-demand.  Production would be determined by users, not manufacturers.   

With global networks of 3D printing centers, small businesses could go global and become major corporations overnight if they develop hit products.  3D printing will look more like Hollywood blockbusters; a few will dominate, while most designs will remain small in the “long tail.”  

So that’s my vision for the future of 3D printing. It’s fun thinking about the future and how it will create opportunities for many people.   I welcome your comments, ideas and suggestions.  



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