Piece on 3D printing in The Irish Times

The Irish Times, 24 September 2012: “3D printers to manufacture a revolution”. (This is a condensed version of a longer piece – read full piece here)

THE THREE trends toward cheaper 3D printing, consumer co-creation, and digital distribution should be understood as part of a great adjustment.

The current stage of 3D printing is analogous to the early 1990s when the music industry failed to foresee the disruptive impact that ongoing improvements in audio compression and increasing internet connectivity would have on its business several years later. The “crowd manufacturing cycle” is almost upon us. Businesses that sell physical products need to urgently consider how to adapt to and mitigate the coming disruption. 

3D printers are fabrication machines that, literally, turn bits into atoms. While a standard printer places toner or drops of ink on the X and Y axis, the cheaper types of 3D printer do the same but also add the Z axis to construct a physical object.

There are a number of different technological approaches, but the most common method builds real, three-dimensional objects from a digital template by depositing layer upon layer to gradually build an object.

These technologies can be used to produce personalised items in a manner that standard manufacturing methods cannot. 3M’s Lava system, for example, builds hearing aids that are minutely tailored to the ear canals of each individual recipient.

3D printing has been in use for industrial prototyping since the 1980s, but now steadily falling costs are bringing it within reach of consumers.

The cheapest 3D printers such as MakerBot and RepRap can be bought for under €800 in parts and built by home users. Printers in this new low end are rudimentary and unreliable but cheap enough to allow the development of a “homebrew” community of amateur enthusiasts.

At the same time, the tools to edit designs are becoming easier to use. One such tool, TinkerCad, allows casual designers to work on 3D objects over the web without installing any software.

These simplified tools are doing to objects what Web 2.0 did to information: consumers will become co-creators, and object design will become subject to crowd innovation. Objects are about to become “Objects 2.0”.

The design of personalised objects will become an ongoing process of crowd remixing and manufacturing in which there is no final cut. The combination of crowd modification of objects, and the shift in distribution that this will bring, is a new “crowd manufacturing cycle” that will disrupt the conventional chain of design, production, and distribution.

In this new cycle a design passes from digital form into physical existence by way of 3D printers, and then into the crowd by way of digital distribution.

The object moves from digital bits, to atoms, and then to what might be called “social bits” from which subsequent iterations can flow in a perpetual loop of customisation and refinement. The diagram (below right) shows the three dimensions of the crowd manufacturing cycle.

Thus, a finely designed object may come from thousands of edits and adaptations by users, and many thousands of further iterations and variations may result. A simple drinking cup, for example, might be customised to suit the personal hand grip of each individual who prints it.

As a consequence consumption and retail will change. Just as MP3 compression made music easy to copy over the limited internet connections of the late 1990s, the easy transfer to 3D design files from which objects can be printed will transform retail and distribution.

And these items will be designs in flux – redesigned and remixed by the crowd, and printed at home or on demand by a printing service.

Much as internet users became assertive creators of Web 2.0 content, consumers are likely to become creators, or at least adaptors, in the crowd manufacturing cycle. Incessant crowd remixing of brand name items will, at the very least, dilute brands’ cachet. For luxury brands “secret sauce” proprietary materials might protect designs that deliver specific functionality as a result of their composition.

The crowd manufacturing cycle will, at least initially, be good news for consumer choice. The spread of app store-like libraries of printable objects will create a “long tail” of choice and availability, much as iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon have done for music, film, and books.

In parallel the supply chain will also change, and this will have an impact on global trade.

As objects are increasingly printed locally the number of items that are manufactured and transported from remote, low-cost economies will decline.

Some categories of manufacture will escape disruption. 3D printing is suited to once-off production whereas large print runs of relatively simple objects are better suited to conventional manufacturing processes.

3D printing of electronic devices is also probably a long way off, although there is early stage research heading in that direction too.

Electronics aside, it is clear though that 3D printing is falling to a price that makes consumer take-up likely.

And with 3D printers will come the crowd manufacturing cycle, a future of infinite choice and personalisation. Conventional retailers beware.

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