By Wladimir Hinz, RIC Centre Research Associate
When was the last time you made something? Not a meal, not your bed, but something real. As the walls between the digital and physical world crumble down, the magic of 3D printers is turning imagination into reality.
As 3D printers are becoming more affordable and easy to use, many say that this technology has the potential to disrupt the manufacturing industry in a way that can only be compared to what the industrial revolution did. It will make everyone rethink the traditional manufacturing process.
Present time 3D printing consists of what’s called “additive manufacturing”. By this process, a physical 3D rendering of an object is made. It uses raw material as input and aggregates it layer by layer, following the instructions of a digital file. This happens to be the opposite way of how objects are being manufactured right now, which is by removing pieces from the raw material until the parts that are wanted are made. There’s also a ‘true’ 3D printing called accelerated nano 3D printing, but this is still at very early stages of research.
The list of materials being used as raw input is quite diverse and includes plastics, metals, ceramics, food, and even, living cells. The layers are getting smaller and smaller by the day as well, they’ve gotten so thin that you actually can’t tell that they are there. This is allowing scientists to create the smallest of things, like blood vessels and organs.
Now, if the current predictions hold out to be true, 3D printing could turn out to be a very scary technology for current businesses. It could very well change how the economy works by providing solutions that would almost certainly impact every market. These three stand out most:
- 3D Printing can transform commercial relationships by turning the passive consumer into an active creative producer.
- Intermediation could take a big hit, as consumers would only need raw materials as input.
- Highly detailed, tailor made products would be readily available and at the same price as something that was mass produced.
This is very exciting. It’s an explosive technology of things made just for you. Businesses will have to adapt to survive. Especially the ‘middle men’. An example of what could ensue is what happened to music when peer-to-peer sharing became mainstream. It changed the business model of the industry and, in the long run, companies decided to adapt to the new technology instead of fighting it.
The economy will become more energized and dynamic, as companies wouldn’t have the need to reach a large number of customers since products could be made on demand. The implications of this are huge. Maintaining product inventories could become a thing of the past. Imagine all those resources being freed up and being used in more productive and innovative areas. This is already happening to some degree as the costs for building and testing prototypes has been brought down significantly.
What’s scarce could also radically change. The possibilities are limited just by our imagination. Want to know how to build something? Just access the internet and look for what you need. There’s already a community of innovators that gives everybody the opportunity to create.
There are concerns for copyrighted material but there’s not much that can be done for unauthorized copying, especially for things that are out of the scope of copyrights. Patents can be protected, sure, but what about mundane and everyday things?
Disruptive as it may be, there’s still time to adapt. Desktop 3D printers are now just becoming affordable, but hopefully this technology will live up to all the expectations and “democratize manufacturing”.