3D Printing: Novel or Practical?

Imagine having the ability to create nearly anything in the comfort of your own home. Or at work. Or in a classroom. Or in a hospital.

Additive manufacturing, popularly known as “3D Printing,” has the potential to revolutionize our personal lives. 3D printing is the literal opposite of the traditional manufacturing process, which essentially pares down a large piece of raw material, be it wood, metal, or plastic, into a product we can use. A 3D printer transforms a computer-aided design (CAD)—a virtual blueprint of anything from a toy apple to an entire car part—into a physical product. The printer slices the blueprint into digital cross-sections, and complex mechanisms within the machine translate those cross-sections into layers of liquid or solid material, rendering the final product.

3D printing will irrevocably change the retail industry. It’s a lofty statement, considering the limited usage of the technology today, but consider the implications of future innovations in efficiency and an expanding user base. While 3D printing’s short-run benefits, from sheer convenience to highly customized products, are obvious, its long-run benefits are more powerful. 3D printing will force retailers to innovate and to deliver more value to their customers in order to prevent the retail industry from disappearing entirely. Though there are doubts about 3D printing’s safety and viability as a practical technology, what is undeniable are the ripple effects it will cause in the retail industry and beyond.

For example, 3D printing may do to the toy industry what peer-to-peer file sharing (torrents) did to the entertainment industry. The ability to print the latest action figure for your child’s birthday present could soon replace those last minute scrambles to Toy R’Us. Though most affordable 3D printers today do not have the capacity to make complex objects with intricate parts, this may very well be a possibility in a the near future. The capabilities of such technology gives consumers enormous power and could certainly prove to be a disruptive force within the retail sector, much like torrents were in the music industry. The key distinction here is that the entertainment industry can rely on the “experience” factor to compensate for lost revenue from illegal downloads. Live experiences such as concerts, music festivals, and movie theater viewings continue to be popular with consumers.

However, if 3D printing continues to improve in detail, quality, and affordability, traditional retail outlets like Toys R’Us can offer consumers few advantages. In the near term, producers of homogeneous products such as Barbie Dolls and solid action figures may see their sales decrease as consumers gain the ability to produce these toys at home. Model building kits and toys can be easily reproduced at home, as 3D printers excel at making solid, small parts.

Programmers and designers of 3D printed objects also face similar issues software and media developers face. Pirating would certainly pose problems for developers. One way to tackle this would be to make the designs one-time-use or disposable. After the object is printed once (or perhaps ‘x’ number of times), the schematics for the object automatically delete itself. Another way developers could combat pirating would be to not allow consumers to download or install files in the traditional sense. Instead, following in the footsteps of companies like Blizzard (see Diablo 3), they should require users to stream the file or have an Internet connection in order to regulate usage of designs.

It’s about time existing hardware catch up to software, and 3D printing allows the ‘maker’ community to bring hardware into the twenty-first century. Let’s say a mechanical engineer needs a physical model of a highly specific car engine part. It is unique, intricate, and incredibly difficult to craft by traditional means. Producing the part by traditional means would require expensive molds and machinery that would not pay for itself at all. Basic microeconomic theory dictates that the marginal cost and average fixed cost of a good should decrease (although MC increases after a certain point) the more goods you produce. In this case, the engineer would need to pay an enormous cost for the first, presumably the only, item he or she produces.  In cases like these where economies of scale do not factor in, 3D printing is the superior method of production. Computer software has allowed programmers to create a virtual model of nearly anything.

What is interesting is that there are very few successful open source hardware companies. MakerBot, very much a supporter of the “do it yourself” ethos of the Maker community, was one such company. The popular 3D printing startup raised eyebrows throughout the open source community and industry when an updated model of its “Replicator” printer, released in the fall of 2012, was no longer open sourced. It was clearly a move that aimed to transform its image from hobbyist-startup to a professional company. With its hardware now safe from clones and copycats, it is likely to raise more revenue through greater sales and give investors more confidence in its business model.

Maker enthusiasts and proponents of open source hardware would argue though that MakerBot betrayed the spirit of democratic innovation that it, and arguably 3D printing, once embodied. MakerBot has essentially shifted its “competition” from an altruistic, hobbyist community to profit-driven closed-source companies, which may or may not pose a greater threat to the company. OSHW supporters believe that if through incremental improvements and iterations the community can develop a more effective, cheaper 3D printer, shouldn’t that benefit everyone?

My conjecture would be a conditional “yes.” I ultimately believe in the ingenuity of crowd-sourced thinking in certain instances. Browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox have proven the value of an enthusiastic community in furthering software development. Wikipedia has demonstrated the efficiency and accuracy of a dedicated, educated user base. However, the only way MakerBot and companies like it could have engineered such remarkable technologies was through significant financial backing, conditional of course upon profits. Thus it seems that only through a closed-source model, perhaps with certain open source characteristics with respect to printing designs, can 3D printing thrive as a technology.

Though much of our discussion has been focused on the retail sector, 3D printing’s impact need not be limited to retail. The concept of transplanting 3D printing technology into the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry is not far-fetched and would greatly improve medical treatment. Imagine if your dentist told you to download your dentures after an annual checkup. After making a mold of your teeth, scanning in into his computer, he would hand you a “prescription” with the following instructions: “Download. Print.” The convenience of 3D printing encourages prototyping and modeling, which could in turn spur medical breakthroughs. What if printers used organic matter to create cells, tissues, and possibly even entire organs? Doctors could print biotic products, such as skin tissue, tailored towards specific diseases and patients.

While 3D printing is certainly revolutionary it’s important to remind ourselves of fundamental limits of this technology. Consumers will probably never be able to “print” a Nintendo DS at home. Consumers would never print ordinary domestic items such as silverware and furniture. Manufacturers of toys can at least rejoice in the fact that 3D printers cannot and possibly will never be able to produce the complex toys with electronic parts currently sold in toy stores.

Enthusiasts tout 3D printing as the most “democratic” form of manufacturing. This sentiment is rather unfounded. Economies of scale will mean that traditional manufacturing methods will always have an edge over 3D printing in terms of cost and efficiency. It is unrealistic then to hope that someday consumers will be able to have mini-factories at home capable of creating anything at a moment’s notice.  Furthermore, unless there are revolutionary advances in technology, the quality of 3D printed objects will always be inferior to their traditional retail counterparts. The plastic resin and methods used to create these objects, while not flimsy, lack the strength and durability of more commonly used materials.

For such a versatile technology it’s conceivable how it could be used for illegal and even dangerous purposes. Indeed once the technology improves, this fear may prove to be a formidable obstacle to widespread adoption. The designs for 3D-printed guns, for example, can be found online. Such guns function exactly like normal ones and fire standard ammunition. It is even conceivable that one day, ammunition can be printed online, though it may be trickier as bullets require gunpowder. Many sensationalists and doomsayers correctly identify possible abuses of 3D printers, but these concerns do not hold up to close scrutiny.

Many overestimate the danger such abuses can pose. For one thing, ammunition production is still beyond the scope of current 3D printing technology. If owners of a printed gun don’t have access to regular ammunition, their gun is effectively useless. Furthermore, their access to ammo in the first place raises the question of why they would even go to the trouble of purchasing printer, printing materials, and schematics rather buying an actual gun. The image of a gun enthusiast or hardcore criminal going out of their way to employ a high-tech method of production to create a gun, rather than getting one off the black market, is slightly preposterous. In America in particular, if a person really wanted a gun but for some reason did not have access to gun stores, there are far more convenient and cheaper ways of getting one. Furthermore, with relatively simple “how-to” guides for homemade bombs and other weapons available online, is it really reasonable to believe that the mass adoption of 3D printing poses a significant threat?

For entrepreneurs and serial inventors, 3D printing makes prototyping a new product incredibly convenient. By simplifying the production and prototyping stage, the entire product development process and team can be streamlined. It follows then a boost in efficiency should lead to a burst of venture and entrepreneurial activity. The availability of 3D printers for common usage in hotbeds of startup activity such as college campuses will prove to be a boon for the entire industry. Thus while 3D printing is an impressive technology in its own right, its true value lies in its ability to spark other innovations and lead to the breakthroughs of tomorrow.