3D Printing is in your Future

I’ve been watching 3D printing evolve for a number of years now.  I first started hearing about it almost two decades ago, and like most people my initial response was that it sounded like science fiction.  A few years ago, a friend of mine started a little business where he bought his own rapid prototyping machine and started to rent out time on it, mostly to manufacturers who needed a prototype, but also to the movie industry (like most people he abandoned the movies when he could).  The quality was never quite what I would like to see for my own purposes, but last year I figured the quality available was sufficient and I actually went to an RP service bureau to get something that I wanted.

Then this year, HP announced that they’re getting into the 3d printing market, and will be partnering to produce their own 3D printers.  Initially these are going to be aimed at businesses that used to go to my friend to get a prototype, and perhaps at architects who used to go to another friend to get hand-crafted models built.  One day, however, they are going to be aimed at you and me.  And we’ll both get one.

We’re about at the point we were 25 or 30 years ago when laser printers were becoming available.  Nobody had a printer in their house in 1979 and there was no market for in-home
printers. Why would you need one?  You might have a typewriter if you were inclined to write to the newspaper, but a printer – that was for making multiples.  Now everyone has a laser printer, and many of you have a laser printer that prints colour.  Mine sits idle for weeks at a time, and we probably go through a package of paper every two years, but I have one.

A similar trend has emerged in photocopiers. 20 years ago, you had to go to the library or an office to find a photocopier.  Now many home printers double as photocopiers.   Today if you’re at a friend’s house and you want a copy of something (that isn’t already digital) they say, “I’ll go make you a copy.”

Just like laser printers, why would you need a 3d printer today?  You might have a few tools if you were inclined to be handy, but a 3d printer – that’s for making prototypes for injection molding.  But what if you could wake up one morning and say, “hey, I want a charging stand for my new iPad, but I’m too green to drive to a store and shop for one.”  So you go online, where there is already a growing open source library of 3D designs for stuff (see Google’s 3dwarehouse for example) and find that some kid in Iowa (why is it always a kid in Iowa?) has already created a design which is close to what you want; you download it, modify it and have your charging stand all set up by the time you’re finished your coffee.

That would make everyone I know want one.  And that would make a market.

With a market like that, we’re absolutely going to see the quality improve and the cost come down, just as we did with laser printers and photocopiers.  This in turn will make more kids in Iowa make more designs, and more people will want to print them.

It’s interesting to think of what a world with pervasive inexpensive 3d printing will look like.  Would people be likely to customize designs to fit their lifestyles?  Could we distribute manufacturing so that many things are assembled in your neighborhood rather than shipped around the planet?  Will we repair more than we discard or will we be buried under a sea of iPad charging stands?

I can hardly wait.

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