zondag 19 januari 2014

A future of 3D printing for the consumer market

Existing for more than 20 years for specific industries and prototyping, 3D printing (additive manufacturing) is crawling out the shadow.  It’s getting more and more attention and according to some people a revolution is started. Whether a revolution or maybe an evolution, it sure is more than just a trend. The past two decennia, the techniques of 3D printing have proven their value, and the growing attention of media and business (in very different industries) will function as an accelerator for the 3D printing market. The rising stocks of 3D printing manufacturers show this clearly.

It is difficult to point out what exactly can be expected from 3D printing, that’s why the title of this blog is ‘A’ future of 3D printing instead of ‘The’ future of 3D printing. Nevertheless, I like to share some of my thoughts (and questions) what effect this technology might have on the near future if the present high rate of developments in the 3D market is continuing. And because it’s a Saturday night, I’ll stick to thoughts and will save the analyses and calculation maybe for other posts…

3D printing consumer market
As the 3D printers are getting more advanced the products which are manufactured are getting also more and more advanced and are used in several high-tech end products like airplanes and cars. But also in other areas like the dentistry and food markets 3D printed products are used.
Besides the attention of the industry, the attention of 3D printing for the consumer market is increasing, as prices of printers are starting to decrease. Nevertheless, there is still some work to do before this market potential can be captured as todays’ consumers will only be satisfied when products or services are user-friendly (easy in use, ready for use, plug and play)  and not too expensive.
Some of these hurdles still have to be taken are in the areas of costs/price, materials (availability and types of-) and quality of the ‘output’ of the ‘low-budget’ printers. Besides that, manufacturers must be ready to sell products by ‘sending’ the printorder and software will need to be developed such that consumers can design (program) their own products in an easy way (Or better: ‘printing the picture I just made with my tablet or smartphone’).

Currently we see that companies are indeed taking steps to develop and enter the consumer market. For example we see do-it-yourself kits ‘ of 3D-printers’ far below the €1000, the type of materials which can be used for 3D printing are increasing (metals, plastics, even food), 3D Systems (3D printer manufacturer) has announced a collaboration with Intel which is developing 3D scanners for tablets, and so on.

Besides the hurdles mentioned above which have to be taken in order to reach the crossover point where consumers are widely accepting the 3D printing technology, it is also important for organizations to look for collaboration. Collaboration between larger brands (who are prepared  to sell their product via this new ‘sales -channel’), 3D manufacturing companies and software-suppliers is a necessity for bringing 3D printing to a wider public. Companies which are willing to capture a significant market share in the 3D printer market for consumers will need to start now with making investments,  to enjoy benefits when that crossover point is reached.

3D printing in practice

How this might look like in practice? I don’t know, but as I see it, there are multiple (no, even more than multiple) scenario’s how and where 3D printing can be used. Will 3D printing at home be the next normal? Or will there be a sort of ‘printshops’ or ‘print-houses’ on each corner of the street where you can collect your 3D printed items which you just ordered on Amazon or programmed at home with your tablet?

3D printing will have a significant impact on logistics. Without getting into detail, think about  inventory management. Some products aren’t  necessary to have in inventory if you have 3D printing technologies in house (though you still have to have the raw material in stock, but with the same material you may be able to make multiple type of products, so in the end you have less inventory). Furthermore the decoupling point will be more flexible, it’s a complete new sales channel for companies. Production costs might decrease as well as transportation costs. And so on.

But as all innovations do, 3D printing will bring new challenges. Think about plagiarism of ‘print orders’ of products? And how often are you allowed to print your newly bought product via de 3D printing channel?
Can it be copied? Can the printer be hacked?

Another challenge will be responsibility? Who do you account for malfunctions during the printing process? Is it the owner of the printer? The manufacturer? Or the ‘Amazon’ who is sending you the print order?

What about Ethics? Are there any guidelines for this? Are you allowed to print guns? Will the current regulations of the government do, or are new regulations necessary?

These are just some of the many questions which will rise when getting closer to the aforementioned crossover point.

New businesses
In order to cope with these challenges, new (types of) organization will come into being to fill the gaps created by the new 3D printing market. Thinks about 3D printer services who provide maintenance to 3D printers, brokers who will take responsibility for the quality of printing jobs send from ‘Amazon’ to the consumer.

If you took the time to read the article, you know it was just to share some of my thoughts on 3D printing which was certainly not exhaustive. Nevertheless, I hope you liked it and made you think about 3D printing for the consumer market.

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