One Tuesday a few weeks ago, I needed a lime green t-shirt for an event that evening. I took time out of my busy day to stop by Gap. No luck. I went to Old Navy. No luck again. Neither store had the exact shade of green I was looking for. I returned home empty-handed.
Imagine if I didn’t need Gap or Old Navy to buy a t-shirt. Imagine if I could create the t-shirt at home instead. That's the promise of 3D printing technology.
A 3D Printing Primer
For those who need a crash course, 3D printing is the process of making three dimensional, solid objects from digital files. To start, one makes a virtual design of the object using a 3D modeling program (for the creation of a totally new object) or a 3D scanner (to copy an existing object). To prepare the file for printing, software slices the final model into horizontal layers. When this prepared file is uploaded in the 3D printer, the printer creates the object layer by layer. The 3D printer reads every slice (or 2D image) and blends each layer together, resulting in a solid, three dimensional object.
A Revolutionary Transformation in Manufacturing
The first consumer 3D printers are just hitting the market now, but this technology’s potential to transform business and work as we know it is mind-blowing. Here’s what Business Insider had to say about it earlier this year:
"3D printing will give rise to thousands of new businesses, new ways of distribution, and new processes of intellectual property management. It will create an entrepreneurial and financial tidal wave that could one day dwarf the Internet in its scale and disruptive power.
The world will transform from a macro-manufactured supply chain to a micro-manufactured supply chain. And this supply chain will not be thousands of miles long. Rather than one factory producing 10 million toys a month, there could be 10 million factories producing one toy a month."
A Huge, Fast-Growing Market
Will 3D printing usher in the next industrial revolution? It would certainly seem that way. The 3D printing industry is moving so quickly that some estimate that by 2025, 10 percent of consumer products will be created using a 3D process. Between now and then, the market size will grow to $8.4 billion.
But before we assume that 3D printing will eventually cause all large companies to disappear and that work as we know it will become one individual creating a product for another individual, we need to consider the limitations of current 3D printing technology. First of all, 3D printers are still pretty slow and use only basic materials. Depending on the individual product and its ability to scale, one may never find it economically sound to use 3D printing.
I also agree with the point made by Techtonics "that not everyone is a designer." For instance, using 3D printing, I theoretically could produce my lime green t-shirt, but would I know what I was doing? Where am I getting my training on how to design a great shirt? How could I ensure quality? At the end of the day, might this process still be better left to someone else?
Although 3D printing isn’t poised to take over the world quite yet, manufacturers and their complex hierarchies will have to start thinking of their work in a very different way.
Will this technology impact your business, and how are you planning to adapt?
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