For an emerging technology, 3D printing can certainly seem a bit old hat. While in one form or another 3D printing -- or, more accurately, additive manufacturing -- has been around since the 1980s, in recent times it seems like you can’t go more than a week without hearing about some new stunning advancements.
We are demonstrating the ability to print virtually anything with any material. People are 3D printing everything from houses and human organs to parts for the Mars Rover and even pizza. As if this wasn’t enough, we are approaching the ability to print things from anywhere as well. With Made In Space launching a 3D printer to the International Space Station in September, 3D printing in outer space officially became a thing.
But despite all of this, the truly fundamental shifts that 3D printing will have on our lives and economy have nothing to do with the degree of fancifulness that we can achieve with our printers. The disruption will come as we develop an infrastructure that allows for distributed manufacturing. Soon we will be able to produce products at their point of use. The implications will be forever altered supply chains and distribution networks. That is what will change our economy.
A while back I had a chat with Andres Wegner, the CEO of Authentise. Authentise is a company that enables a secure way to stream and distribute design files for 3D printers. As design files are the blueprints for actually printing objects, this becomes incredibly important in the quest to distribute manufacturing. Taking advantage of the cloud and streaming these files is essential to making this dream into a reality.
Streaming design files will transform how we consume physical products in a similar manner to how streaming services revolutionized consumption of things like music, movies, and software (think: Spotify, Netflix, and the SaaS business model revolution) .
As I mentioned at the beginning, we are approaching a world where we can manufacture almost anything anywhere so long as we have the raw supplies and the design files. During our discussion, Andre brought up the example of an auto repair shop. He noted that having a single printer on site has the chance to be much cheaper than carrying the vast and expensive inventory necessary to handle possible repairs. At the very least, there is the opportunity to print the part on site and avoid the cost and time delay of shipping from a distribution center.
The opportunity to manufacture objects at, or at least closer to, their point of use has significant consequences for supply chains. Printing things like customized spoilers for Formula 1 race cars at the track, tools for astronauts on the space station, or coffee mugs in the home means that our supply chains will shift from shipping finished products to raw materials.
Andre was quick to point out, and I'm inclined to agree, that underpinning all of this is the need for security and authentication. Especially in the case of objects such as car parts where our safety might depend on their performance, we will want to know that the design was created and certified by a trusted source. Further, if distributed manufacturing is to take hold, we must ensure that designers’ rights are protected. We’ve already gone through this challenge previously in the early stages of digital music (remember Napster?). In a world where any file can be replicated or physical object can be scanned and uploaded – designers are rightfully fearful of their work being pirated. This is a challenge that people like Authentise are working to overcome.
As the physical capabilities of 3D printing continue to progress at their wild pace, it will be the supporting services and digital infrastructure that will allow the innovations to be truly revolutionary. Think of it this way: before we could realize the full potential of automobiles we first had to build out a vast infrastructure of bridges and highways.
With personal 3D printers, if we want a simple object printed we can print it from our own home. But what if we want something that we don’t have the ability to print? It’s not hard to imagine a future in which if we will go to a specialized store with industrial grade equipment to pick up our order. While cost advantages associated with standardized and mass produced items such as nails, or paperclips may be difficult to beat – at what point are customized objects more cost effective to print once we eliminate the costs of factories, middlemen, and shipping? We could choose our design from an online store or even email a custom design file and pick it up. This is much the same as we might already pick up specialty printing jobs from stores like Staples.
In this sense the consumption of physical objects will likely move to an ‘as a service’ model. Every design, every object, and every customization of a product can be found and printed on demand. With changes this profound, it will be hard to imagine areas of our lives and economy that won’t be impacted by 3D printing.
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