How Will Additive Manufacturing Technology Affect the Industry?

This is the second article in our three-part series about additive manufacturing technology. In Part One, we looked at the business case for existing manufacturers deploying additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies. Here in Part Two, we will look at the effect additive manufacturing technology could have on the manufacturing industry at large. Specifically we’ll assess a widely-promoted prediction among proponents of 3D printing that many consumers will soon begin printing more and more products at home, rather than buying them from traditional manufacturers.

3D Printer, by Mr. Hoffman's Blog
3D Printer, by Mr. Hoffman’s Blog


What is the 3D Printer in Every Home Hype About?


Proponents of these new technologies, which include 3D printer company MakerBot (based in Brooklyn), fit neatly with the do-it-yourself — Martha Stewart — HGTV — Etsy — Millennial generation zeitgeist of our time. Many of these enthusiastic proponents of additive technology claim that traditional manufacturing is doomed because in the near future everyone will print all their products at home or locally. Well, before we completely dismiss this kind of hype out of hand, we need to acknowledge that in fact a 3D printer on the desktop is a magical and transformative technology.


Consider the Old Way of Doing Making Product Prototypes


If you were a product design engineer prior to the advent of 3D printing, much of your time was devoted to creating realistic physical prototypes out of clay, foam core and other materials. However it was unlikely these hard models could ever be convincing enough to initiate full-scale production, as it was difficult to simulate working hinges and other plastic characteristics in hand-made models.


Ford designers still create clay prototypes of their cars. Image by The Wall Street Journal
Ford designers still create clay prototypes of their cars. Image by The Wall Street Journal


Instead, it was often the case that you needed to create short-run prototype tooling (typically made from aluminum) in order to injection mold a few plastic prototypes before deciding to commit to final production tooling. The turnaround time for this was often weeks (not days) and the cost in those days could easily exceed $10,000 for just one set of prototype tooling (which was good for around 5,000 units). Side note: it’s also worth noting that efforts to contain these costs and speed up production led many American manufacturers to send production to Asia with its lower production costs and growing expertise in rapid prototyping and product manufacturing.


How Does the Hype About 3D Printing at Home Displacing All Traditional Manufacturing Compare to Past Technology Predictions?


First, a disclaimer: there have been some real technology prediction whoppers over the years. Perhaps the most famous is from Thomas Watson, the then chairman of IBM, who confidently predicted in 1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” You probably have five computers in your home or office right now. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to compare the predictions of 3D printing promoters who claim that “nearly every household will be equipped with 3D printer” with some of the predictions in the past.


For Example, Whatever Happened to The Paperless Office?


Remember the The Paperless Office? It’s pretty ironic that the advent of low-cost desktop printers and copiers actually increased the amount of printed paper documents. But maybe we are judging this prediction too soon. Online cloud-based applications on smart phones to allow you to conduct many transactions, like online check deposits, paying parking meters, booking airline travel — all without paper. So maybe The Paperless Office will arrive one day — thanks to cloud computing.


The PC Revolution Versus 3D Printing


Another comparison that’s interesting is to weigh the PC Revolution against the promise of 3D printing and additive technology in the home. There are a lot of similarities between where personal computing was in the late 1970s with where 3D printing is today. Back then there was an active computer hobbyist movement as well as lots of research in computer technologies at places like Berkeley and Xerox Parc near Stanford. Out of this community came Bill Gates at Microsoft and  Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs at Apple. If we traveled back to 1980, it would have been hard to predict that within 10 years the PC revolution would completely change the way we worked in the office.

So it’s easy to extrapolate that the same kind of revolution would happen in 3D printing. However, the PC Revolution was different in a significant way: personal computers made office work easier than doing things by hand. For example, if you never had the pleasure of typing up a five page manuscript on a traditional typewriter, you cannot really appreciate the power of a PC-based word processor. The same cannot be said for 3D printing however. Designing a product is hard. Printing takes time. Shopping on the other hand is easy. In fact today — with online shopping and Amazon one day delivery — it’s easier than ever to shop by clicking a button.

So maybe 3D printing is more like other creative software tools, like video editing software and 3D game tools. These allow you, theoretically, to make Steven Spielberg quality movie productions at home or online games comparable to something on an Xbox. There will be exceptions, but realistically most people won’t have the time (or skills) to devote to it to achieve results comparable to what’s commercially available. At the consumer level what we are likely to see instead is a proliferation of “Instagram” style apps that let you ‘automagically’ design and customize a 3D product based on a photograph and a few presets.


It’s Not Really a Zero Sum Game


The claim by 3D printing advocates that hundreds of thousands of 3D printers across the country will replace traditional manufacturing as we know it is a zero-sum game assertion. But, as we saw in our first article, traditional manufacturers are also taking advantage of 3D printing capabilities to improve their efficiency and deliver a long-tail of specialized products to consumers. So rather than a zero-sum game, this additive manufacturing technology could be considered a win-win for both traditional manufacturers and the new generation of 3D-Print-at-home enthusiasts.


Our Prediction of What We Are Likely to See in Short Term


Our prediction is we won’t see universal adoption of 3D Printing technology in every home. Instead, we predict ever faster innovation — driven by talented, entrepreneurial-oriented individuals taking advantage of the 3D printing’s low cost, speed and flexibility. This will be fueled by non-conventional fundraising mechanisms, like KickStarter and other social media crowd funding sources. For example, in this week’s Washington Post there’s an interesting article about an individual who saw the need to prevent someone spying on you using the camera in your notebook computer.  He quickly invented a clip-on plastic shield to cover the camera and had it commissioned by 3D printing aggregator Shapeways. This allowed him to bring it to market very quickly.

head 3d printers

How Manufacturers Need to Respond


3D printing technology in the hands of individuals will lead to even faster design cycles and the rise of trends (or ‘trendlets’). Manufacturers would do well to monitor these breakout designers by participating in the DIY community and (where possible) entice them to enter partnerships where they can work together. Manufacturers who choose to ignore the upcoming generation of innovators who use 3D printing technology to develop innovative products do so at their peril. These young guns have access to funding and could become formidable competitors quickly.

Instead, engaging with the community is the way to go. In fact, a new generation of 3D printing experts might turn out to be a savior of traditional manufacturing, which has been suffering an acute shortage of technologically-adept workers. The 3D printing community could be exactly the source of budding manufacturing talent that traditional manufacturers so desperately need.

In the third and final installment of the series, we’ll look at the potential legal, ethical and environmental consequences of establishing a widely distributed network of additive manufacturing sites.



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