In recent weeks, we have learned that you can print out a gun that actually fires1 and a bikini you can actually wear2. So are there any limits to what we can achieve with 3D printing? And what will this mean for future business models?
How it works
A 3D printer builds up an accurate reproduction of a digital model, layer upon layer. The relatively cheaper models extrude layers of PLA or ABS plastic and the results can be quite basic, rough and crude. More expensive models use a resin or even powder to gradually build up much finer detail in a wide range of materials.
Industrial printers with metallic powders can produce workable machine parts and even bespoke medical implants3. Scientists are currently experimenting with organic material and vegetable fibre so that 3D printers could eventually be used to replicate working human organs for transplants or even edible food.
The more sci-fi applications, however, are probably still a way off. In the shorter term, 3D printing presents an efficient way to replicate bespoke designs outside of the mass production model.
3D printers are perfect for producing prototypes of new products, parts or architectural structures. Ford engineers already use an industrial-grade machine to produce prototype moulds for rear axles, cylinder heads and more. This allows them to skip the lengthy and expensive traditional methods to create moulds4.
Architects have also begun using 3D printers to easily transform a building plan from the screen into an accurate scale model of a building. However, some businesses are already taking the technology beyond the prototype stage.
Can't get the parts?
Instead of waiting weeks for a rare part to be shipped from overseas, imagine if your mechanic could print it out right in the garage. Parts could be printed to order, as long as the mechanic, engineer or designer has the digital model as a template.
There are already cars on the road and even airplanes in the sky containing printed parts. Granted, these are usually less important items such as window trims or cup holders, but the benefits are obvious.
The new inventors
This increases the value of IP with fewer manufacturing limitations5. As the designer doesn't need to manufacture the product to sell it, the design can be resold over and over with no additional costs. Some businesses have already begun to experiment in producing custom-fitted shoes, limited-edition action figures and various novelty items (don't forget the bikini). 3D printing may trigger imaginative new business models we can barely guess at right now.
Don't expect every home and business to have a 3D printer in the corner, printing out a toy for the kids, a spare part for the car and that replacement hip joint for Nan. Most printers are limited to one type of material only. This means you can only print out objects that are entirely plastic or metal, etc.
Plus the hype of 3D printing is driven by highly-publicised examples of what can be created on the most expensive industrial machines. Ford's printer is worth over $1 million4, so don't expect the cheapest models to achieve anything close to the same results. The materials are also much more expensive and there are no economies of scale. The end result depends heavily on the accuracy of the digital design in every dimension. Already the various 3D model libraries are filling up with files that actually don't work that well when printed out6.
Sure, if you have a workable digital model and the right cartridge in the printer, you could print out a new, monochrome one-piece pen holder for your desk. As long as it isn't too complex and you don't want a perfectly smooth finish. But it will probably still be cheaper and quicker to pop down the road and buy a mass produced pen-holder. The quality may be better too.
Despite all this, 3D printing will make customisable, limited or one-off parts and designs far more practical and attractive for those entrepreneurs with an eye for an opportunity.
This article represents the views of the author only and not those of American Express.
Jonathan has worked within, and written about, the technology industry for many years. Before going freelance as a writer in 2012, Jonathan had worked for Netregistry (web hosting) and Ninefold (cloud computing). Jonathan has won awards for his articles on online business for Nett Magazine and his over-opinionated blog Atomik Soapbox. He continues to write for Chief Content Officer magazine.