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Known also as "additive manufacturing" (because it builds objects by adding materials layer by layer in cross sections), the technology is growing rapidly in ways that promise to replace the almost 100-year-old mass-production model that defined the industrial revolution.
The consumer economy will be revolutionized by the advent of 3D printing.
And instead of just padding the bank accounts of huge corporations and their shareholders (which it will do as well), the people set to benefit the most are consumers, small businesses and communities that will now be able to make and customize just about anything imaginable for local markets.
What Is 3D Printing?
The way 3D printing works is actually quite simple: A computer-designed blueprint is loaded onto the machine, which is filled with the material that the object will be made of (spools of plastic, pellets of steel, ceramic base); a nozzle dispenses the material in cross sections, layer by layer, using a filler material to occupy what will be the hollow parts of the item. Once all layers have been printed, the filler is brushed away and the solid object remains.
Because the machine builds products in cross sections, shapes and designs are possible that simply cannot be made when manufacturing means starting with a block of material and shaving away the excess material.
Who Can Use 3D Printers?
While 3D printing in factory settings has been the driver of the industry's growth, prices have dropped enough to put the machines within reach of small businesses and individual consumers. MakerBot is the leading manufacturer of smaller, at-home 3D printers, with its "
Thing-O-Matic" that sells for $1,299 (less than this reporter's home computer cost). CEO Bre Pettis explains the machine in simple terms: "It's basically like a hot-glue gun that uses the same kind of plastic used to make Legos."
Other machines, like the ones used by
Shapeways to create the diversity of objects sold on its online marketplace, work in metals and ceramics, and their higher temperatures mean they aren't really the safest for use in homes.
While the technology is still in its infancy, innovators have proven how versatile it can be, such as using 3D printers to make
bicycles out of nylon,
clocks out of concrete,
customized chocolates and even
transplantable organs that will one day save human lives.
While the implications of what the technology can do are seemingly infinite, the burgeoning technology has already demonstrated how the consumer-goods economy is in store for a major revolution. Here we investigate some of the most promising ways it can make the life of the average consumer better and less expensive.
The Benefits of 3D Printing
Traditional manufacturing is great at making a lot of things for a low per-item cost, but that mode of production assumes a number of limitations.
"Normally you're limited to a design that someone has decided to make 10 million of," explains Pettis. "With 3D printing you can try a design that you like, you can put a face on it, you can make it however you want. If you have an idea and you have a MakerBot, you're unstoppable."
And it's not only people with sophisticated computer design skills that benefit, Pettis is quick to point out. Communities such as MakerBot's
Thingiverse and the
Shapeways marketplace allow anyone to access free designs that can be loaded into a machine or to buy other people's creations directly.
With more choices available for a growing number of products, consumers have more options and can buy products at competitive prices that are sometimes little more than the cost of raw materials.
Yes, You Can 3D Print Your Own iPhone Case
For people who are willing to make the initial investment in a machine such as MakerBot's Thing-O-Matic, the savings on individual products becomes clear.
For Pettis, the possibility to easily make children's toys -- and not worry about breaking them -- represents one of the best ways to use the technology as a money- and stress-saving tool.
"When a kid says 'Daddy I want a new toy car' instead of going out to the store," Pettis says, "the dad can say 'let's MakerBot it.'"
For adults, one of the most popular products on MakerBot's and Shapeways' shopping sections is the
iPhone case, which has proven to provide a great opportunity for users to customize and make their own products for a fraction of the cost charged in stores.
"On a MakerBot an iPhone case costs 15 to 30 cents," Pettis explains. "It's the same type of plastic, same type of designs. It's not injection-molded, so you can see the layers, but it's the same product."
3D Printing Replacement Parts
The savings don't apply only to making one's own products, either. Peter Weijmarhausen, CEO of Shapeways, recalls when one of the firm's employees broke a small but critical part of his high-end Bugaboo baby stroller and decided to try the repair himself when he was told by the company that sending the product back for repair would cost $250.
Savings of 90%. He replaced the part for $25 and was on his way.
And even when the product in question isn't a luxury item, the savings are worthwhile. Another Shapeways user describes the simple replacement of a part
on a desk lamp that most people would have simply thrown away and replaced with a new one.
At a fraction of the cost, a replacement part printed on a 3D printer kept the lamp out of the landfill.
Innovation for Anyone
While big companies found a benefit in using 3D printers for quick prototyping, the increasing accessibility of the machines has opened up a world of possibility for individual inventors.
"Large-scale manufacturers use 3D printing for prototyping to get the look and feel of their products down," Pettis says. "That's a cool use and makes it easier for them to design the products, but we've made the material so cheap that anyone can make anything for very little money."
Indeed, Weijmarhausen points to the many ways the technology reduces the barriers to entry for individual entrepreneurs to bring their products to market.
"With Shapeways the barriers are much lower," he says. "You can make something for $10 and test how it sells. There is not much lost because you don't have huge stock you have to get rid of and you don't have to risk too much."
Along the same lines, entrepreneurs can make changes to their products based on feedback from customers in real time. One seller on Shapeways, Weijmarhausen says, went through 14 different iterations of an iPhone case in one year, which is impossible to do using traditional manufacturing techniques.
"With mass production, if you get feedback you can't improve your product until you've sold the first 100,000 copies," he says. "It takes a long time to go to version two. But with this technology, you can improve the product because it's only made at the moment people buy it."
The Environmental Impact of 3D Printing
While the environmentally friendly benefits of using only as much material as you need and avoiding the casual disposal of consumer goods are great, Weijmarhausen sees 3D printing as a way to reduce the environmental impact of shipping mass-produced goods across oceans to get them in consumers' hands.
"With 3D printing, because you don't have to have a specialized factory for each product, you just need one factory with machines in it and you can bring the material there to make all sorts of things," he says. "You don't have to put things in big crates and ship them around the globe -- it's faster and better for the environment."
The Economic Impact of 3D Printing
That fact alone points to the potential for 3D printing to make manufacturing local again and provide a huge boost to the American economy. While 3D printers replace a lot of human bodies, the fact that most consumer goods are made in China and other places where labor costs are low suggests that in this case, any repatriation of the process will yield benefits for local communities.
"It's much less labor-intensive, so production will go local again because it will save on shipping time and shipping costs," Weijmarhausen says. "That's an amazing prospect."
With the ability to produce small runs locally, 3D printing technology represents a boon for small businesses, which are generally cut off from traditional manufacturing techniques due to a lack of capital to invest in making the huge quantities of a product required to sell each one cheaply.
Fabio Esposito, vice president at
Solidscape, a subsidiary of the largest 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys (SSYS), says the efficiency gains for small business are huge when they adopt 3D manufacturing technology.
"A 3D printer works overnight and works on the weekend, so a business owner has 24-hour production that before he could not afford," Esposito says. "You can launch a job overnight, come in in the morning, unload the machine and load in another design. Friday afternoon you accumulate jobs and run them over the weekend."
Hagop Matossian, owner of
Bostonian Jewlers, uses Solidscape to print models for his business's unique jewelry designs. For him the cost savings directly affects the bottom line.
"If you're having a single model built for you that costs you anywhere from $80 to $120, which is probably the norm out there, and you can now build six models or five models on one run," Matossian explains, "as a business owner I think about all the money I'm saving doing these models ourselves."
How 3D Printing Benefits Big Business
Big businesses benefit as well, of course, from the improved efficiency of being able to print physical objects in complex shapes that would be considerably more expensive using traditional techniques.
"Because you can make things that were previously impossible -- ducts for wiring and cables, for example -- that makes engineering much more efficient," Shapeways' Weijmarhausen says. He points to the example of aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus, which has capitalized on the technology to make stronger,
stiffer and cheaper parts for its aircraft.
As the efficiency of these techniques evolves, so does the bottom line for companies and consumers.
What's the Future of 3D Printing?
While these examples only scratch the surface of what 3D printing can do, industry leaders see a future in which 3D printers become even more affordable, to the point where they will be accessible to anyone.
"Mainstream adoption, like in homes, is where everybody believes we will get to," Solidscape's Esposito says. "Nobody knows when or how quickly it will be adopted but there are so many ways the technology will be used."
Pettis sees the next big development in the 3D printing world being adoption of the machines in schools rather than homes. MakerBot has developed some
curricula for teachers to integrate the technology in the classroom, to familiarize the next generation with the process.
"Imagine you're 10 or 11 and have a machine that can make you anything; how does that change the scope of innovation in the U.S.?" Pettis says. "It's a great time to be alive, a great time to be somebody who's creative."
3D printing may be the future, but check out our look at 7 Gadgets That Won't Make It to 2020 to see what devices are relegated to the past!