Perhaps the most intriguing piece of manufacturing technology to come from the past few decades is the 3D printer. These machines are simply amazing, enabling the immediate development of any imagined and electronically-rendered design. Additionally, the precision and detail these tools enable quick, cheap, and accurate creation of the designs and products envisioned by the creators. These machines, that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars just 15 years ago, can now be purchased from companies like MakerBot for as little as $1-2K. So now literally any organization, institution, and soon, any individual will have the ability to create and print their own products. That’s an exciting and scary thought.
I’ll start with the exciting thought though your imagination is probably already running wild. Not only do these machines give us the potential to all be creators, they also give each of us the opportunity to easily become entrepreneurs by turning our ideas into commercial products. The barriers to entry into any industry decrease when you have a tool that can create your product in a space of 2 cubic feet.
The scary thought is the potential opposite effect that these products could have on our economy. When we reach the point where every household has their own 3D printer and each person becomes capable of replacing thousands of products they regularly purchase in stores with products they print, what does that do to established producers? Or what happens when companies begin to implement these machines in their plants and are able to replace nearly all of their labor force? Will we have slipped all the way into a Matrix/Terminator/Wall-E world???
Calm down, let’s not be so dramatic. Though we could conceivably journey towards a society where adorable robots are our society’s best hope, let’s live in the present for a little while. In my opinion there is one big constraint that 3D printers deal with today and that’s materials. 3D printers are capable of insane speeds but are limited by the time it takes for the material to set at one level before moving on to the next level of drawing. Until better materials are created to keep up with the speed of the machine, the true potential of 3D printers won’t be unlocked. Additionally, the material constraint will likely keep large scale manufacturers from moving to a completely electronic production system. So it’s unlikely we’ll see a full-scale shift to 3D printers by today’s major existing manufacturers in the near future.
Now here’s the really exciting part: 3D printers may actually be able to help local and domestic manufacturers! Today a die cast or mold can cost thousands of dollars and either prevent creators from production or incentivize them to produce abroad. 3D printers give creators the opportunity to eliminate these initial fixed costs and look to local manufacturers to fill their orders. The economics of global manufacturing, especially with the cost and lead time of transportation, could shift the needle back in favor of local and domestic manufacturers! Time will tell.
What do you think? Am I way off? Is 3D printing going to save our economy? Wreck our economy? Let me know your thoughts!