Amara’s Law states that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. So it was with the birth of the internet, and so it will be with the proliferation of 3D printing, the most extreme manifestation of the FEWER principle in action. 3D printers allow the user to manufacture one custom piece. How does a 3D printer work? Think of it as the opposite of making a sculpture. As opposed to taking a solid block of material and slowly chipping away at it until it is the desired shape, 3D printers use a hose-like nozzle to craft a product or part from the ground up, minimizing waste. The nozzle is directed by a computer graphics software rendering of the product or part.
3D printers have been in use in industrial situations for decades, primarily for creating prototypes to speed up the product development process. However, over the last 5 years, prices for the machines have plummeted and desk top versions have become widely available. This has spurred legions of makers to experiment with the technology, leading to further refinements in the technology and potential uses for the machines. Worldwide shipments of 3D printers will reach 217,350 units in 2015, up from 108,151 in 2014, according to Gartner, Inc., an information technology and research & advisory company. They also estimate that 3D printer unit sales will more than double every year between 2015 and 2018, by which time worldwide shipments are forecast to reach more than 2.3 million.
Although they have traditionally been used by large manufacturers to speed up the product development process, 3D printers are nearer to making the leap to consumer products than many think. Nike has used 3D printing to create custom sports bags, and in a recent interview, Under Armour’s Senior Innovation Design Manager, when asked whether the company has any plans for 3D printing, responded, “If you want to put something in your hat (figuratively), definitely something big is going to happen in the future.” It sounds as though a cap tailored exactly to the shape of your head is in the works.
In a January 2015 article on the availability of 3D printed shoes, Andrew Wheeler writes that “as the air of customization reaches the minds of an infinite number of consumers, the show shopping impetus is shifting from ‘let’s see what’s available’ to ‘I want it to look exactly like this’ or ‘this is exactly what the shoe company should do’ or ‘why don’t they just make them like this’ and so on.” Given the rapid proliferation of 3D printers – and products made by them – one could substitute almost any word for “shoe.”
Local Motors, based in Phoenix, describes itself as a “free online and physical workspace where creativity, collaboration and design drive vehicle innovations.” This online community, augmented by a small number of employees, designs, builds and sells what they call “badass vehicles.” Revenue is shared by those in the online community who helped create the product. At the January 2015 North American Auto Show in Detroit, Local Motors introduced a 3D printed car that can be made in 40 hours. CEO Jay Rogers noted that fully 95% of the volume of the car is 3D printed; the motor, springs and tires are not. Clearly Local Motors is working toward the ability to offer a stock chassis and allow consumers to customize body design, number and type of seats, trunk size, etc. It will be some time before such vehicles are deemed safe for normal road conditions, but time is the only obstacle.
Larger companies are also exploring innovative ways to use 3D printing. Let’s say it’s your anniversary, you are taking your spouse out for dinner, and you want the chef to serve pasta in the shape of a rose. You simply bring the rose design on a USB drive and hand it to your waiter, who passes it along to the chef. She installs the drive onto a 3-D printer and serves up the dish in 20 minutes. Seem far-fetched? The global pasta company Barilla is currently working with a research organization to design a 3D pasta printer that will churn out custom designed pasta at restaurant speed. Also in the food realm, at the 2014 SXSW trade show in Austin, the Oreos booth featured two custom-made vending machines with a 3D printer that enabled attendees to create and eat custom 3D printed Oreo cookies based on trending social conversations. Users pick from 12 “trending” flavors and colors of cream filling, then watch their cookie being “printed” in two minutes. And the “My M&Ms” website allows consumers to add messages, photos and art to their candies.
Joshua Harris is working on a clothing printer that would allow you to create your own T-shirt at home, styled to your exact body type. When the garment begins to get a little ragged, you simply load it back into the printer and it breaks down the thread for use in a new shirt. The fact that 3D printers will one day allow you to make your own clothing at home reminded me of an increasingly common sentiment I saw in the comments section at the end of an article concerning 3D printed dresses. Someone mentioned that it could be a lucrative revenue stream for the company selling the customized dresses and one wag responded, “Sell it? Why? We can just easily replicate the pattern and print it ourselves. For the price at (the design company) you could buy a high end printer and do it yourself.
3D printers have a synergistic relationship with the burgeoning consumer desire for more customized products, and they reinforce the importance of implementing the FEWER principle in any manufacturing operation. They are here to stay, they will become more affordable, and they will be increasingly used not merely for prototypes, but for production runs. It may not be next year, but it will be within 10 years.