Why 3D printers are so cool

liedtke, bryceWhile watching “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” the invention allowing users to reach out and grab a candy bar from their TV screen, “Wonka Vision,” has long evoked wonder in audiences. This technology, once perceived as fantasy, is now a comparable reality through 3D printers.

3D printing was unveiled in 1984 by creator Charles Hull, though efficiency and accessibility has historically made it rather limited and exclusive in application. Until recently, this medium has been out of reach for personal use and commercial manufacturers on a large scale, yet we are beginning to see how this innovative process will soon transform the way we live.

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These machines function by analyzing 3D files and building products layer by layer in a process coined as stereolithography, creating tangible replicas from the data provided. Initially, these printers were able to produce manufactured parts that were close imitations, though imperfect.

Since that time, three-dimensional printing has advanced and found applications that mirror something out of science fiction. Everything from prosthetic limbs, functioning organs, food, manufacturing components and even guns have been printed.

The impact of such a technology is expansive with tendrils reaching into healthcare, manufacturing, creative services and socioeconomic trends at large.

One of the most intriguing facets this presents is 3D’s potential industrial influence. A loose generalization has technological capacity doubling about every 18 months, begging the question: what degree of integration and marketability can we expect from these devices in the next 10 to 20 years?

The rate to which these printers will gain prominence is subject to debate, but we can certainly speculate on radical changes in the nature of manufacturing and labor demographics.

The ability to manufacture efficiently usually attaches the assumption that we must do so on a significant scale and with a somewhat reliable forecasting methodology. Stagnant inventories and over- or underproduction cost firms billions of dollars annually. However, this may be coming to an end.

With the application of three-dimensional printing, it is plausible that inventories, supply chains and economies of scale can become irrelevant. With the facility to print nearly any imaginable component cheaply, locally and fully, the capital intensity needed to produce consumer goods, and eventually any good, is lessening.

The RepRap Project is an initiative creating a machine that can reproduce its own components, making it a 3D printer that prints 3D printers — a project truly showcasing the mind-bending possibilities.

Sites like Shapeways.com have already sprung up, where users can upload 3D files and have them posted to an electronic market place. Shapeways will print your product regardless of sales volume, creating a business venture for designers that stand to profit as little or as much as possible, risk-free from sacrificing investment if a product isn’t a hit. They currently print goods ranging from kitchenware to jewelry.

These types of business models will give rise to what I dub ‘mom-n-pop manufacturing’, making global markets accessible and feasible for even the smallest firms. The ability to create goods on demand in such a consolidated fashion could nearly eradicate the manpower required in factory and supply chain labor.

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A potential shift from large-scale manufacturers to the independently creative has the ability to decimate conventional barriers of entry to markets, essentially providing a platform to designers and entrepreneurs on par with what YouTube has given indie broadcasters and artists.

This double-edged sword of innovation simultaneously fractures a workforce, once thought fundamental to manufacturing, while placing globalized trade at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access.

Imagining an economy where individual have the capacity to compete with multi billion-dollar firms sounds like an entrepreneurial dream, but as always, the devil is in the details.

Comparisons have been drawn between the future of 3D printing and the digitalization of the music and movies. With the nearly effortless replication of MP3’s and films, these sectors have seen significant revenues hijacked by piracy. Many wonder if this trend will translate into printed goods when creation is a download away.

With the accessibility that will be brought to manufacturing, what is to stop pirating of designs and simply printing off customized products yourself? At a glance we can see the complexity and headache of litigation that will undoubtedly arise out of copyright legislation that doesn’t exist yet.

The future of trade with this emerging technology is vague, but one thing is certain, global industry is due for a second revolution.