A world full of 3D printers that can make almost anything probably will be an almost inconceivably complex place, where products and blueprints are designed, customized, made and sold by an uncountable number of companies and home printers offering a dizzying array of products.
Most products we use every day are made of many parts. They result from many manufacturing steps performed by different machines, each with its own operator. Each machine and operator does a certain job, such as cutting, drilling or milling, then passes the part to another machine and operator that perform another job, and on and on along an assembly line until the part is complete. Eventually, all of the parts are assembled into a final product, either by machine or by hand.
3D printing replaces all of these steps with fundamentally different machines and materials that substantially simplify the manufacturing process, as I explain in my book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World. 3D printers can make finished products, with all their parts, fully assembled Driven by a digital blueprint, they build layer upon layer of fused plastic, metal or other materials.
Traditional manufacturing depends on mass production and its economies of scale and low labor costs which are barriers to entry for would-be competitors. 3D printing eliminates those barriers because a single machine can make an entire part or product, fully assembled.
As the technology advances, anyone will be able to make anything, thereby democratizing manufacturing. Also, it is no more expensive, per part, to 3D print one part versus a million parts, to customize every part instead of making them all the same, and to make highly complex parts. Because 3D printing may eliminate the need for centralized mass production where labor costs are low, tens of thousands of 3D printing fabricators will pop up all over the world, making customized parts and products regionally.
Before 3D printing, products were designed so that they could be made with traditional manufacturing methods which is called design for manufacturing. 3D printing eliminates such limitations and enables manufacturing for design. This allows designers to create products that never existed before, and to give existing products a radically different look and feel.
3D printers can be used not just by traditional manufacturers, but also by their customers.
Consider a company that needs turbine blades used in power generation. The blades need to be replaced from time to time at great expense. By using 3D printing to repair the blades, the customer no longer needs to buy new ones. This is great for the customer but terrible for the blade manufacturer and the lines have blurred between manufacturer and customer because the customer has become the manufacturer.
Suppose a customer starts 3D printing its own spare parts rather than buying them from the OEM. Some OEMs will adapt. Maybe they will start selling 3D printable digital blueprints rather than making parts. They may become digital design companies and close their factories.
Other OEMs will not adapt, as Kodak failed to adapt to the digital imaging revolution. Some companies may be unable to adapt as many horse-related businesses were unable to do when the automobile came along. In my book I use a fictional company, ZeframWD, a manufacturer of warp drives in the next century, to show how 3D printing may force traditional manufacturing companies to adapt their business models.
Certain elements need to fall into place for a 3D printing revolution. We need 3D printers with large build platforms as well as printers that support high speed or scale of production
Additional requirements for market disruption incude:
- Advanced materials (including materials that may not yet exist) that enable the efficient printing of complex structures
- The ability to print complex, integrated structures, such as smartphones and blenders
- The ability to print very small things, such as the integrated circuitry of computer chips
- Hybrid machines that can perform the processes that today’s 3D printers cannot
- Innovators, especially the innovators of the future—namely, young people who grow up with 3D printing
I believe these elements are falling into place. Anything that sounds farfetched probably isn’t, but it will probably take longer to happen.
--John Hornick is a partner with the Finnegan IP law firm, based in Washington, DC and the author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World.