If you watch the trends there’s been a splash of announcements from 3D printing startups and secured funding, most recently Form1 receiving 6 times its target on Kickstarter. Affordable and home 3D printing has the potential to be possibly the most disruptive manufacturing technology seen in recent years. Right now the ‘affordable’ tag is somewhat dubious but as the initial cost of entry falls to within reasonable mass consumer use and not just for the wealthy early adopter I can see all those small, mass producers of fun trinkets and complete tat disappearing very quickly. Not only that, but established brands that have been household names for generations will go out of business (Hornby, Airfix anyone ?) Like the massive collapse in retail stores recently due to the economic crisis and online demand the entire manufacturing landscape could change forever. And here’s why:

  • 3D designs are already circulating via Phisibles on Pirate Bay, it won’t take long before people start selling them on eBay for profit
  • 3D objects will quickly follow suit in eBay, ETSY, Moonpig….
  • Those clever enough and with business savvy will start to eat away larger manufacturer patches by offering smaller, bespoke services for resellers or ‘print your own design’ for consumers.
  • Creativity will suddenly become currency over quantity again
  • Affordable printing will mean you can design and build Grandma/ Dad/ their next birthday gift rather than trawl the shops looking for something ‘unique’
  • Who needs an expensive designer furniture piece when you can knock one up yourself and be the envy of all your inkjet wielding friends ?
  • School homework will be to design and print off an atomic structure/ architecture/ idea and show and tell the following week
  • A 3D printed exhibit will be crowned a Turner prize winner

Massive implications indeed!

This raises a lot of copyright issues however. Like the famous Jamie Thomas file sharing case patent holders will be chasing down anyone who trades in either designs or the ‘real’ physical object itself. But that’s not the end of it. There are now examples of people using simple techniques and conductive ink to print circuit boards. With a few extra components from Maplins and your local PC warehouse you could potentially build homemade computer equipment.

What’s next, create your own 3D printer using a 3D printer ?

Only recently is was reported that a collaborative team worked to manufacture an actual AR-15 rifle, printing off respective parts separately for assembly later. This poses a massive problem and security risk for a start but also shows how disruptive this technology can be. “Made in China” will be replaced by “Made in the garage”, with friends banding together to create their own pseudo-assembly line, spreading their designs to a wider community for improvement and further refinement. Homebrew Manufacturing will reign in a few years once this technology matures.

When it does, come by my stall in the front garden and I’ll sell you a freshly printed Lamborghini….literally hot off the press.