The Evolution of 3D Printing

I remember exactly where I was the first time that I heard about 3D printing. In the time that’s passed, it’s obvious that the claim made that day of an important future technology that should be watched closely has been entirely accurate to date. There’s a great deal of innovation taking place and regular heart-warming and incredible stories in the press that highlight the potential.

However, the industry also has a long way to go. I listened to the always-excellent a16z podcast episode ‘The Next Stage of 3D Printing‘ a while back and felt it was worth sharing some of the highlights from the conversation with Tom Rikert and Carine Carmy of Shapeways.

Why 3D printing is so powerful

Unlike traditional manufacturing, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing technology that enjoys some powerful advantages:-

  • Being additive, no mould is required.
  • As a result, you therefore don’t require the same upfront capital to create a product.
  • There is more freedom when it comes to design.
  • The printer doesn’t care how simple or complex the product is and treats both the same.
  • These new techniques can result in products that are stronger, lighter and more beautiful.
  • And crucially – it enables rapid prototyping.

Historically you’d have to produce big expensive prototypes before going to market that might take a long time but ultimately prove to be far from what the customers actually want. Now you can avoid the whole ‘focus group’ lottery and actually get a product in front of customers quickly for feedback.

Customers are the winners

Social media normalised the previously-alien concept of businesses speaking (or, more accurately, listening) to their customers. The same thing is now starting to happen with product design and development because of 3D printing. It’s early days yet but businesses are now able to seek and incorporate customer feedback into the product development process.

To continue the social media analogy, it was always hard to listen in the field of product design in the past. It took too long and the product cost too much to make which meant that feedback could only be sought irregularly. But with modern customers starting to show an increasing appetite to personalise and influence the development of products, the businesses that tap into this knowledge can benefit. Rely on your customers to define the product in a way that meets their needs in a more efficient way. Result? A cheaper process for the company and products that are of higher value to the consumer.

Current 3D printing is also uncovering niche markets for long-tail products made by individuals. And some forward thinking companies are really leading the way here – for example, Hasbro are allowing fans to adapt and modify their intellectual property.

Great product design always starts with identifying the need. With 3D printing, the customers are actively defining that need on Day 1 – so the benefits are clear to all,

Standing on the shoulders of giants

Of course, not everyone wants to design from scratch. But that’s part of the reason why 3D printing is so powerful. A few people are happy to start the design process with a blank computer screen whilst many more simply want to tweak or augment existing designs (such as those who choose to customise their own trainers).

It’s fascinating to consider how 3D printing is affecting the historic notion of seasonality (produce something and then after a few months, discount the price heavily to ensure that it shifts off the shelves). Apparently, in 2013, half of the products created by Shapeway were actually designed in the previous two years. So the idea that something old must necessarily be less valuable is turned on its head as designers continue to be rewarded whilst their timeless designs continue to sell forever.

Challenges still remain

The industry still has a long way to go however. Much of the 3D printing software is more naturally suited for stunning animation-esque so it fails to take account of gravitational and other requirements now such beautiful pictures being turned into physical form. Also, materials continue to remain a constraint. 3D printing is able to use an increasing variety of materials – but typically only one material can go into one print run. Yet if you look around your room, there are very few single-material products anywhere to be seen.

It will also be fascinating to see how digital rights develop from this point on. How does the original creator of a design get paid for his or her work whilst others modify the design for their own ends? Also, whilst the accessibility of designs will increase, it doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be used – the majority of individuals are still likely to be drawn to the most fashionable products that culture is signalling are ‘cool’ at that time.

As do the opportunities

A recent survey showed that 2 in 5 Americans knew someone that was making things themselves. The big question is how many of these people will be keen to do so in the future using 3D printing.

Gradually, the industry is developing a way of being able to use different materials in the process as it evolved from ‘simply’ printing materials with form to materials with function (i.e. a circuit board inside the end product or a replacement part that goes into a working piece of machinery).

3D printing is invariably expensive – otherwise everyone would have one. However, in one area in particular, the cost is not prohibitive compared to the alternative. In essence, 3D printing is suited for the production of complex, personalised products for which there is a low demand. And it’s clear now that the human body might in fact be the best application – if doctors can find a way to print highly complex but perfect organs that fit you perfectly (as they are doing), it could be less about making My Little Pony fan art products – and more about saving lives.

And that’s a pretty good result for any new technology..