In July 2011, I heard a wonderful edition of “In Business” about 3D printing by Peter Day. Bottom line: it is going to change the world.

I recommend that you listen to the podcast itself; if you scroll further down, you will see the comments written about the programme by Peter Day. There is also a good, if only very short, summary on the BBC News website. On this one, the podcast is so interesting that I really recommend listen to it. Half an hour of your life that you won’t regret, because if the programme is correct, as I believe, 3D printing is really about to change the industrial world completely.

The idea of 3D printing is extrusion or “additive” manufacturing. Instead of taking a block of material and chopping away what you don’t need to get the final shape, you start from scratch and you add layers to arrive to the final product. From what I understood it relies on some plastic polymer being laid down gradually, a bit like a toothpaste that dries.

Image of someone piping cream on a cake

Yeah, that's the idea.

Why is it going to change manufacturing?

  • It breaks the link between design and manufacturing.
  • It reduces the need for transport.
  • It allows for heavy customisation.

3d printing breaks the link between the design and the object.

Imagine that you need a new keyring. With 3d printing, this is what would happen. You log on to your favourite designer’ website, you browse the keyring section and choose your preferred design. You pay five µnits (in the future there will be a single world currency, the µnit) to download the corresponding template. And you send it to your personal printer, that you have installed in your basement. Et voilà!

Currently whichever firm designs a product is also going to manufacture it (unless it outsources production) and selling it. This means that most likely you buy a product from whoever designed it.

With 3d printing this does not need to be true anymore because 3d printing breaks the link between the idea of an object (its design) and the physical object itself. Which means that you can buy the design from the designer, and then have it produced by yourself, or by another firm of your liking.

This should lead to further specialisation between designers on one hand, and producers on the other hand.

3d printing reduces the need for transportation

If you can download a template, then produce it locally (at home, or at work, or in specialised shop), it means that you can buy a design from Australia and have it produced just where you live. What has to move is the design, not the object itself. More electronic transport, less physical transport. Which means reduced cost of production!

There might be economies of scale in 3d printing. That means that a company with a big 3d printer, or numerous 3d printers might be able to print at a cheaper cost than you could at home. So I am guessing there will be specialised shops everywhere, where you can just go with your design on a USB key, and pick up the object the next day.

In this respect, 3d printing is VERY similar to developing digital pictures. You give some electronic files and you get back some physical object. The point is that, in the same way that someone in New Zealand can send you an electronic picture to be developed in London, they could send you a design that you would print locally.

3d printing allows for customisation

With 3d printing, since you first buy a file, it means that with some knowledge of 3d design, and a user-friendly software, you could alter the design to customise it to your liking. To go back to the keyring example: I could print a keyring with my phone number engraved on it, or my name, or the face of Justin Bieber.

This means that 3d printing will probably end the era of mass production of identical products. You can have it as much as you exactly want. Actually you could even design your own product!

Limitations

So far there are a number of limitations for 3d printing, e.g. how solid it is, problems of intellectual property, etc. I will address those in a separate post.

Statue of Nintendo character Mario printed in 3d

Honestly, who wouldn't want that?