Without a doubt, 3D printing is one of the hottest discussion topics at the moment.
From President Obama's announcement of new 3D printer facilities in his 2013 State of the Union speech, to the highly controversial issue of 3D printed guns, 3D printing is becoming one of the most talked about subjects on the internet, and with good reason.
As I'm sure you'll agree from watching the PBS video below, the question of whether or not 3D printing will have a dramatic effect on our lives has already been answered. So, now the question is: How will 3D printing change our lives?
How 3D printing will effect consumers.
First of all, with 3D printing you're no longer a consumer, you're a creator! 3D printing has a whole host of positives ahead for consumers as products become more customizable, unique and readily available on demand. Imagine never again having to wait for a product to become available or “in stock”, or for a replacement part to be shipped to you. Many items you would normally need to order and have delivered to you will be self-manufactured at home.
And 3D printing has the potential to create more than just inanimate objects! Already, with scientists “printing” body parts with material as small and complex as living cells and Google's canteen serving 3D printed pasta, the sky really is the limit for what 3D printers will enable the average consumer to manufacture themselves.
Overall, the main benefit for consumers comes from the ability for 3D models to be customized. Ever had that perfect coffee table or book shelf pictured in your head, but just can't find it? You may find something close, but it's never quite what you visualized. Well, imagine customizing products and getting exactly what you want, every time you wish to own something!
How 3D printing will effect businesses.
Remember when everyone downloading MP3s was supposed to bring the music industry to its knees? Well, that didn't happen. They rolled with the punches because they came to understand that the fans love the convenience of downloading their entertainment. You can't stop progress, and, similar to what the music and film industries have done with services like iTunes, all designers and product makers will have to rethink their own business model.
That's not to say that things won't get a little bumpy for the manufacturing industry as it adjusts to this significant technology, but adjust it must. Just in the same way that MP3 players changed music distribution, 3D printing will change manufacturing as we know it. But as Apple can tell you, there are big profits to be made for the most forward -thinking companies.
Companies will no longer have to store inventory of products or even manufacture and distribute them any more. The idea of ‘seasons' for products would disappear, as every product ever made would be forever available as a downloadable file. No more discontinued items, and no more waste, as old products could forever be repaired and reused.
This ability to ‘forever repair' products has obvious negative repercussions for businesses. What better motivator for buying a new product than having your old product break? I suppose the race is on to build ‘better products' in order to encourage consumers to upgrade to the latest offering, since repairing the old products will be so simple and accessible.
Why 3D printing is a good thing for the economy.
With any major change comes fear, and the fear of job losses due to the consequences of a 3D printing revolution is high and, in reality, nearly inevitable. But whose jobs could be lost? The manufacturing jobs that 3D printers can currently replace are the same jobs that are being sent overseas in the tens of thousands. Early adoption and development of this technology by the United States has positioned it as the world leader in 3D printing technology and will ultimately create jobs all over.
All three of the world's biggest names in 3D printers (3D Systems, Stratasys and MakerBot) are founded and based in the USA. From these companies come new services and jobs, like on demand 3D printing service Shapeways. Similar 3D printing ‘Kinkos'-style stores could offer low cost, occasional 3D printing to the masses, as well as breathe new life into a dying print industry.
3D printing will also give a huge boost to the software industry, with world-class American 3D software companies like Autodesk leading the way with the most user-friendly and free 3D software available to date. Autodesk has recently announced a partnership with 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot to develop its 3D printer software, proving similar business opportunities for 3D printing are a huge probability here in the USA.
So when is this 3D printing invasion going to happen?
Well, like everything else in our economy, that depends entirely on consumers. If the general public shows interest in 3D printers and thus sales increase, investment in the further development of 3D printers will also rise and their prices will fall. Though, currently (as any quick browse of Kickstarter will show you) there is a large amount of funding already going into 3D printing, so we expect developments like MakerBot's 3D Digitizer (for 3D scanning your models) to come quick and plentiful.
While so far progress has been huge in bringing 3D printers into homes, it's still seen as a hobby for a few and almost unknown to many. 3D printers do require some effort (albeit minimal) in order to operate, which doesn't necessarily sit well with today's ‘plug and play' society, but they are getting simpler and easier to use all the time.
What 3D printing currently lacks, in order to fully invade the homes of the average consumer, is a machine than can not only print, but can also duplicate an object with the ease and simplicity of using a microwave. When that day comes, 3D printers will be just another device that we wonder how we ever managed to live without.