Why 3D printing will be a game-changer sooner than you may think…

The 3D printing industry wasn’t born yesterday; the technology has been around for more than 20 years and has seen significant revenue growth over that period, as summarised in the Wohlers Report 2012 (“Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing State of the Industry”):

In 2011, total industry revenues for industrial and professional purposes had grown to more than $1.7 billion, including both products and services. The industry’s compound annual growth rate has been 26.4% over its 24-year history, and double-digit growth rates are expected to continue until at least 2019”

So why the sudden hype ?

Over the last few years, the technology has reached an impressive mix of affordability, ease of use, performance, and compatible materials (it used to be only plastic, now you can use gold, titanium, ceramics, marble powder, etc…), which has resulted in a tremendous widening of the range of potential applications. Here is a list of notable examples of applications, current or future:

  • 3D printed moon buildings that could be constructed from material already on the moon’s surface (designs were developed by Architects Fosters and Partners in partnership with the  European Space Agency)
  • Wiki Weapon’s 3D-printed guns: the idea of digitally transmitting a gun, perhaps encrypted and over an anonymous network, is truly chilling and is stirring a warm debate in the US

This is by no-means an exhaustive list. The truth is, we are only starting to grasp the limitless potential of 3D printing technologies. What truly amazes me with this technology is that it is powered simultaneously by two complementary adoption waves: the top-down industrial wave (think: big R&D labs of major aerospace and defence companies) and the bottom-up prosumer wave (think: hobbyists/ designers/ entrepreneurs working in their garage). The reason I find this amazing is because I believe these two simultaneous waves will boost the speed at which 3D printing technologies spread and change the world.

As a point of comparison, let us consider how computers got to progressively change the world we live in. In a recent interview by Techcrunch, legendary entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen described the different phases of diffusion of the computer and software technology:  

The computer industry started in 1950 and basically ran for 50 years with the same model, where all of the new computers and the new software started out being sold for the highest prices to the biggest organizations.

So originally the customer was the Department of Defense and the first computers in History got sold for, I don’t know, tens of millions of dollars at the time.

And then five years later computers’ price dropped, so the big insurance companies could buy them. That’s when Thomas Watson, who ran IBM at the time, was quoted as saying, “There’s only a market need in the world for five computers”.

Years later the PC came out and then all of a sudden individuals could start to buy computers. But the PC only ever got to hundreds of millions of people. It never got to billions of people.

Years later, the smartphone came out and it will get to billions of people.

This kind of trickle-down model has been true for 50 years but around 10 years ago the model flipped. Today, the most interesting and advanced new technology comes out for the consumer first. And then small businesses start to use it. And then medium-size businesses start to use it, and then large businesses start to use it, and then eventually the government starts to use it.”

Now compare this 50-year timeline with the progression seen in 3D-printing over the last 20 years. It almost seems as though 2012 was to 3D printing what the launch of smart phones was to the computer and software industry. Except that in the case of 3D printing this tipping point is happening at both ends of the spectrum: both on the enterprise side AND the consumer side.

  • Enterprise side

To date, rapid prototyping has been the main use for 3D printing in the manufacturing industry, enabling higher efficiency in product design development cycles. However, machines have become more reliable and the range of materials more empowering, to the point that 3D printing can now be used as a real production method to make the final product. Indeed, experts have estimated that whilst 28% of 3D printing investment in 2012 was in final product applications, this will increase to 80% by 2020.

When 3D printing as an industrial production method reaches maturity, you can expect a game-changing ripple effect on supply chains. Think of it this way: your entire factory will be mobile! What happens when your factory becomes mobile? The offshoring trend of manufacturing that started in the 80s’, resulted in billions of investment in developing countries by manufacturing companies headquartered in developed countries. This mighty offshoring trend brought tremendous benefits to the economies of China and Mexico, caused millions of jobs in developed economies to shift from manufacturing to service industry sectors, and re-shaped global supply chains around the world. And to think that all of this was justified by one element: the cost of labour gap between developed and developing countries… Try to imagine what impact 3D printing will have when it sets foot in a previously labour-intensive industry and altogether removes labour from the economic equation,

Of course, it will take years and billions of R&D spending for 3D printing technologies to get to the point where they can fully deliver these promises on the industrial side… but make no mistakes, it will get there. (Do you think the clothing industry won’t be affected? Have a look at these 3D printed marvels)

  • Prosumer side

The first two retail stores selling 3D printers opened in 2012 in the US with models ranging from $600 to $2,199. One store is on the West coast (California-based Deezmaker) and the other one in New-Yord (MakerBot). At that pricing point 3D printing is now accessible to pretty much any professional with a design engineering degree. Actually, CAD software is catching up, so any amateur – not just engineers – will soon be able to design their own models and print them with relative ease…

Economies are essentially based on the trade of three categories of goods: raw materials, manufactured goods and knowledge (i.e. services). In the same way the Internet brought to the masses the power to create and share knowledge, 3D printing is bringing to the masses the power to design and produce manufactured goods. For that reason, I believe 3D printing will bring to manufactured goods the same level of disruption that the Internet brought to the services/knowledge industry.

[I intend to publish further articles on the 3D printing industry looking at current competitors, analysing their business models and revenue sources]