3D printing is transforming how we make, sell, use and value material things. In every industry from medicine, pharmaceuticals and automobiles to agriculture, construction and food, 3D printing is creating unprecedented capabilities to realize high-performing designs and concepts in physical form. Momentum has been building for decades, as advances in printer technologies continue to drop equipment costs and the arsenal of materials for printing expands at an almost daily rate—from the standard plastic filament to edibles like sugar and chocolate; natural materials like seaweed, seeds and soil, human tissues and cells; metals; and even building materials like concrete.
Last month the 3DPrintshow arrived in New York City, bringing together artists and technology experts at the leading edge of 3D printing for commercial, design and consumer markets. While designers, architects and engineers already rely on 3D printing technologies to support the design process and rapid prototyping, increasingly, 3D printing is being used to print finished components to spec and onsite—creating a market for hyper-customization on a mass scale. Now the market is expanding beyond design labs into the realm of the household, and targeting a 3D printer in every home.
Below are observations from what was on display at the show as well as insights into where the industry is headed.
Access to Equipment. A focus on cost and ease of use dominated the exhibition, promising to bring equipment and design technologies closer to reach for the average person or family.
- New software programs as well as high-resolution scanning technologies are making the design process accessible to anyone—without training in CAD or three-dimensional modeling. For example, innovative design algorithms from Uformit enable even un-trained designers to create forms that will be structurally sound when printed.
- The DIY/maker movement is also making printers and printing more accessible. For example, an innovator from a fablab in Togo, West Africa—who crowd-funded his way to the show—has created a printer from recycled electronics, and is opening the design specs to the public, enabling others to develop similar technologies.
- Businesses such as 3D Hubs are connecting people who want to print with a network of people and companies who own printers—reducing costs while increasing access.
By and large, consumer-scale printers are designed to use standard plastic filaments. The predominance of plastic products on display—ranging from vases and smartphone speakers, to pieces in the art and fashion exhibits—showed a significant opportunity to expand the palette of printable materials. A wider range of materials can enhance the structural, functional and design capabilities afforded by 3D printing.
- Standing out from the crowd were a pair of machine prototypes from start-up Protoprint that create high-quality plastic filament from recycled plastic; a printer from Sculptgraphicz that prints wood-like forms from compressed stacks of paper; and the PrintGreen printer from a student team that prints seeds and soil.
- By and large, the clunky hunks of neon plastic on display are not recyclable and the devices themselves have not incorporated technology to create more closed-loop manufacturing processes. Recycled and recyclable materials from Protoprint—as well as dMASS NVP Filabot—reduce production costs, increases access, and provide a way to continually create income and economic opportunity.
3D Printing as a Design Tool. According to analyses by Econolyst, a consultancy and research firm focused on 3D printing and additive manufacture, the majority (53%) of people who purchase 3D printers do so for work (followed by 29% for hobbies). 3D printing is a boon for architects and designers—including designers Veronica Zalcberg and Eric Goldemberg of Monad Studio. 3D printing enables them to translate concepts into physical form, including at a range of scales that can reveal hidden patterns and design opportunities. They stressed, however, that the technology is not merely an end in itself but rather a tool to support innovation in design and construction, and a technology to use in conjunction with other building and construction methods such as CNC machining.
3D Printing for Value creation. Product artist Lionel Theodore Dean of FutureFactories explained how 3D printing is increasing the value of design relative to a product itself.
For example, as customers gain access to manufacturing capabilities and a range of materials, it will be design that transforms a pile of aluminum and steel into a Ford Taurus or a Lamborghini—and design that determines the value of the finished product.
A customer’s ability to take part in the design process—to customize a product to his or her needs and preferences, and shape the “value” added—will increase the value of design but, additionally, will increase the value of the end product to that person. Greater investment in and connection to the design process may lead to owners taking better care of their possessions, investing in repairs and holding onto them long-term rather than purchasing replacements. This engagement in the design process has potential to shift customer behaviors toward quality and design over quantity.
What does the future look like for 3D printing in consumer markets? The goal of a 3D printer in every home—modeled after the expansion of inkjet printers to every office and residence at the end of the 20th century—is not the likely direction that the industry is headed. Rather, trends in urbanization, consumer preferences and design are shaping a future defined by ecosystems of printer shops where customers can produce customized products, on-site and to-spec—potentially remaking traditional retail stores as sites of on-demand product creation.
Global urbanization and space constraints. From a technical perspective, global urbanization—and the resulting premium on space—means that until 3D printers shrink to the size of a smartphone or tablet computer, they are unlikely to have a place in the average home. 3D printing "shops" are already popping up—particularly in urban centers—and using existing infrastructure to deliver new products and services—as well as new ways to deliver products and services.
Shared economy and access vs ownership. Urbanization and space constraints are two forces driving the sharing economy and customer preferences for access to products rather than ownership. These trends will accelerate growth of networks of 3D printing facilities, including membership-based makershops and fablabs where customers can print their own designs as well as new or replacement products or parts without having to invest in a machine or a comprehensive set of printable materials of their own.
Repair and the end to planned obsolescence. The ability of customers to print replacement parts will accelerate the trend for repairing existing products rather than purchasing new ones. The era of planned obsolescence as a business strategy has been on its way out but expanded capacity to extend the life of a material investment will further increase the demand for companies to innovate in order to deliver naked value in the best way.
Design-driven economy. Broader access to materials, manufacturing capabilities and design files will drive a shift in value from the thing that is printed to its design. The value of design will be reinforced by customers’ unprecedented ability for hyper customization—what they want, when and where they want it, and from the materials of their choice.
A focus on value delivered. Product-based brands will have to compete in a different way, increasingly earning revenues from design files rather than the actual product delivered. This will also mean an acceleration in innovations that capture and return value from customers’ wastes—such as ready-to-recycle products that enable customers to retain the materials they already paid for, or machines that convert old products into new.
3D printing is changing how we make, sell, value and dispose of—or repair or reuse—everything from kitchen appliances and cutlery, to plumbing fixtures and birthday candles. The businesses that succeed will be able to adapt to these new ways of production and find opportunities to deliver value in new ways.