It seems like I’ve been talking to people about 3D printing for ages, but it seems like momentum is really gathering for it at the moment as it starts to reach a wider audience, and with the news Makerbot Industries has just secured $10 million of funding.
Frustratingly, and out of character for me, I can’t find a blog post noting when I initially heard about it, although it must have been around 2009, as that was when the initial press reports started appearing, and I do remember being familiar with it before I read the awesome Makers by Cory Doctorow, which I then bought for my dad as a far more inspiring and clearer explanation of the possibilities than I could manage. And in addition to promising myself a Makerbot and Arduino board by the end of the year back in January, I’ve mentioned it to a lot of people over the last few years. In fact, my stock answer when people ask me for any tech prediction or investment tips has been ’3D printing and robotics’. The use of robots is delivering disruption in everything from bomb disposal to warehouse management, and 3D printing is going to have a more immediate impact on manufacturing in the very near future.
And as recently as this afternoon, I was reminded of one of Clarke’s laws – ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’, as I showed some very digitally savvy and clever people some Youtube videos to explain 3D printing and left them amazed.
One of the best examples is this video showing the manufacture of a wrench (or adjustable spanner in the UK) simply by scanning it in 3D and pressing ‘print’.
And the possibilities are amazing – already people are creating full sized replica motorcycles, working planes, guitars, sculptures, complex gear mechanisms, and a huge range of protyping applications which aren’t even being publicised, although this promo video for a printer gives some idea of the breadth of the options:
And of course, there’s Makerbot’s products, which can be purchased for under £1000 and then sit next to my home PC churning stuff out, before I can progress to the larger models:
Why is 3D Printing about to hit?
A few things seem to be heading towards the perfect 3D printing storm. Early adopters are already talking a lot about the opportunities, including many people I have a lot of time and respect for. The mainstream media are starting to pick up on it again, and explain it in a way which fascinates people. And when you think about the range of promotional merchandise which could be produced, for example, it’s easy to see that a company could actually save a fair amount of money by running their own 3D printer rather than using foreign labour and a intermediary company.
There’s also the financial situation for most people, and times of austerity often lead people to invest in better longterm products and solutions, including buying better quality products which will last, and looking for ways to fix and improve things rather than replacing them. Give me a way to replace all the broken parts of toys in the house, or various gadget parts, and I’ll soon have recovered the purchase price.
Then you’ve got the fact that you can already print 3D chocolate creations – bang goes the chocolatier industry – and Cornell University have already been looking at ways to produce all types of food from basic ‘food inks’, and even human organs and body parts.
It’s hard to imagine how many industries and businesses will be affected, and how quickly the disruption will take place, given the real world implications are far more immediate than even the digital disruption of the internet has managed. There are plenty of people who resisted going online, or didn’t see the benefits – show them a quick, cheap and easy hip replacement that works and has no waiting time and they can see why it’s worth it straight away!
The biggest challenge to 3D printing:
The only challenge to 3D Printing will be the bane of all disruptive digital technology – copyright. Both Makerbot and Fab@Home are open-source projects, and I have no doubt that any attempt to block access to the technology and raw materials of 3D printing will be immediately worked around.
The biggest problem will be whether existing industries can do anything to initiate copyright law not only for replacement parts for their specific products, but also newer ideas. And they’ve got a huge incentive – take motorcycle production, for example, where a £10,000 motorcycle built entirely from new spare parts would cost over £50,000.
3d printing will disrupt the world in the next 12 months
It’s almost impossible to envisage all the opportunities and implications of what this will bring – and if you’re looking for the easiest and cheapest ways to access the technology, there are already companies like Shapeways that will create whatever you’re able to upload. But although I did once wonder about opportunities for a similar business, it’s really a gateway company as the cost of owning your own production continues to fall to the point where your garden shed is a mini-fabrication facility for anything from paper models to human organs. And considering the cost of a Makerbot Thing-o-Matic is already down to $1299, it’ll be interesting to see how their new investment could lead to even further price reductions in the short term. That’s just from economies of scale etc with the existing technology, and not even accounting for the inevitable improvements in how 3D printers are actually made. Self-replication isn’t exactly unimaginable.
I don’t often gamble on making predictions for something as radically unpredictable as technology and the impact it will have on the world around us, but 3D Printing for me is beyond the introduction of the smartphone, and rivals both the internet, and even the invention of the computer. The question isn’t if it will be the most radical change since the industrial revolution – the only question is when…