As we speed closer to the middle of the 10s decade, the debate about 3D printing – and its potential impact on the typical consumer’s life – shows no sign of slowing.
But it’s a topic which continues to split opinion. Some believe we’re standing on the precipice of a new industrial revolution, one where 3D printing transforms manufacturing processes, overhauls a significant swathe of the existing labour market and empowers individuals to start producing everything from customised jewellery to bespoke plant pots.
Others, meanwhile, argue strongly that this is a much over-hyped subject which strays too far into the realms of fiction – drawing support from the sheer expense of the tools and materials involved as well as the fact that, thus far (and probably for the foreseeable future too), consumer enthusiasm towards the subject has lagged far behind technological capability.
And then there’s the middle ground – the group who remain alert to the possible cross-sector ramifications of 3D printing but wonder just how strong and imminent the impact will actually be. I suspect this is where most people find themselves: intrigued but cautious. And about as willing to champion the idea of a “3D printing revolution” as they would be to endorse the “Death of Facebook”.
Regardless of which camp you’re in, though, it’s hard not to notice the stream of eye-catching and headline-grabbing 3D innovations which are currently emerging across a range of sectors. Since August last year, for example, visitors to Disney World in Florida have been able to purchase a 3D Disney Princess Figurine moulded in their likeness. Elsewhere, Sirona has been using 3D printing techniques to allow dentists to create a bespoke crown in one hour – a significantly shorter period of time than via traditional techniques. And in Japan, Omote3D invited visitors to the late 2012 Eye of Gyre exhibition to have scans and then print miniature, full-figure 3D versions of themselves.
For me, though, there are three events which make it plausible to start getting excited about the effects of 3D printing. The first was the announcement in November last year that Mcor Technologies and Staples were partnering to launch their Staples Easy 3D service – described as offering “consumers, product designers, architects, healthcare professionals, educators, students and others low-cost, brilliantly coloured, photo-realistic 3D printed products from Staples stores”. People simply upload files online and then collect the finished items from the store – with the early 2013 launch in the Netherlands and Belgium being followed by a wider roll-out.
For anyone concerned about the cost implications of having to own a 3D printer (and the materials needed to create anything), a retail service like this is surely an ideal solution. Consumers will be able to print things to their exact specifications, they won’t have to worry about technical processes involved and they won’t have to shell out for anything other than the product they want. It’s also, of course, ideal for the Retail Reloaded trend – a story which tracks the efforts of bricks-and-mortar retailers to combat the rise of online alternatives (the scope for in-store “theatrification” here is strong, much more than if one simply orders a 3D item through a website and then has it delivered). Can we imagine a retail future in which shops across a range of sectors have in-store, 3D customisation centres? It’s got to be highly plausible, certainly.
Equally important is the Filabot printer – a machine designed for domestic use which can recycle existing plastic by grinding it down and then using it to print new items. The inventor sought funding for the project via Kickstarter in 2012, raising more than $30,000 from 150+ backers and claiming that : “Filabot will bring the real power of sustainability to 3D-printing, allowing for a one-stop-shop to make anything”. At present, the machine’s retail cost has not been revealed but the chance to make considerable savings on raw materials moves us one step closer to 3D printing having an affordable and widespread domestic presence.
From the perspective of brands, though, there’s one recent development that stands out more than any other: Nokia’s announcement in January of this year that it was releasing a 3D printing development kit in support of its Lumia 820 smartphones. The move allows customers to print their own, highly personalised case for the handset – with the company providing all the specifications they need to print the product as well as advice about the best materials and practices to use.
Here we see one of the most explosive impacts that the 3D revolution is likely to have for companies. As we’ve argued in our Beyond 2020 report on the Future of Work, brands of the future won’t always be selling physical products in the traditional sense; instead, many will be trading “ideas” behind products, offering rights and blueprints but giving the consumer the discretion to print the item as they like. Clearly, this carries major implications for the types of manufacturing, wholesale and retail jobs which will exist in the future. But more importantly for our purposes here, it opens a treasure-chest of creative and empowering possibilities for the consumer.
Naturally, I’ll end with a word of caution. In the short and medium-term futures, 3D printing will not be for all. Consumer resistance – as well as simple lack of understanding / awareness – will remain pronounced and in some sectors it will always seem less palatable than in others. 3D burger anyone? Didn’t think so. And despite all the innovations discussed here, we’re a long way away – a long way indeed – from each home having a 3D printer in the study. That said, developments will keep coming thick and fast and, led by the retail sector, we’ll be seeing far more commercial and consumer-facing uses of 3D printing very quickly.