Who wins and who loses from 3D printing over the next 10 years. Is this the correct order when all things are considered? Some brief thoughts below.
There are some pretty big assumptions such as; widespread adoption of 3D printers by consumers and small businesses; the technology improves and costs come tumbling down.
3D Printing Winners
1. Consumers (mass customisation, home based production)
If and it is a big if – 3D printers become household appliances and part of the dometic tool set. In other words, their capabilities improve, they become cheaper and design libraries spawn across the internet. In this case, consumers will use them to make household items and replacement parts that normally they would pay for. This has perhaps the biggest imaginable impact on society but it may not be the most likely for reasons given in previous – articles . There are some very real barriers to overcome first of all.
2. Small local businesses (small batch production)
The opportunities are increasing daily for small companies to either adopt 3D printing within their business or become a concessionaire, offering services to others. One of the main advantages to be exploited by small businesses is often they are local to the point of need. It also becomes feasible to see small businesses investing in machines of greater capability than consumers. This may well take top slot in terms of market value and looks like being a probable outcome.
3. Industry & medicine
Many industries already benefit from defence, to aviation to automotive … additive manufacturing is not new. In just one case (medicine), advances in 3D printing have taken its use beyond prosthetics into the world of 3D printed bones, tissue and organs. Medicine and dentistry throughout the world is big business and 3D printing has a lot to offer it. However, we like to think it is the consumers (ordinary people) that will most benefit. As they say, you can’t or shouldn’t put money on health or life itself. Rolls Royce and more recently GE might hit the news headlines using 3D printing in the manufacture of jet engines but it pales into insignificance when you look at the money spent on plain old dentistry.
4. Suppliers/manufacturers of filament
If the amount of 3D printing increases (it probably safe to assume this will be the case), the manufacturers of filament and suppliers will scale up. As the product is a consumable it is very likely to follow the traditional printing industry where paper and toner were consumed in great quantities. In fact some famous printer manufacturers made more profits from these operations than they did from selling printers. We all like to think they made money from their technical prowess in developing machines which could push paper through rollers at incredible speed but they actally made money from clicks (impressions – a piece of paper with toner laid down on it).
5. Manufacturers of 3D printers
This speaks for itself. The race is on to produce better machines at price points that meet with customer expectations. Xerox, HP, Canon, Ricoh, etc became multibillion dollar corporations and there is no reason to think some 3D printer manufacturers will not do likewise.
6. 3D modelling software suppliers
Many of those adopting 3D printing will needless to say start using software to customise designs or indeed create completely new products. It is likely that we shall see software aimed at consumers as opposed to ever more complex and rich featured software – a.k.a sketch up for folk and small businesses is just the start. Wait to you see artificial intelligence being adapted in 3D modelling for consumers.
7. Legal profession
This is an odd one but there are going to be continuous and ongoing legal battles over copyright and patents as 3D printing impinges upon original designs and products. The whole subject of ownership is up for grabs, if not legally then certainly in reality. A intellectual property lawyer has told me he is eagerly awaiting a 3D printed Xmas. In an off remark, “nothing has more potential to cause trouble and that is my profession”.
3D Printing Losers
1. Big brands / manufacturers of product & parts
The big companies stand to lose billions if designs fall into the public’s hands via whatever means; whether it be bit torrent or people simply sharing models. Regardless 3D scanners allow good copying already and will only get better. Every 3D print made in a person’s garage is going to be a lost sale. Whilst the pressure will be on consumers who decide to commercially 3D print items for sale, there is little prospect of being able to stop what individuals do in their own homes. There is another damaging trend for big business to consider. Just as it has affected the pharmaceuticals industry, the mass availability of generic open source products. For many, such products will do – they don’t need the branded item.
This is multi-faceted but stands to reason. Increased home and local business manufacturing of articles only mean one thing. Less need for all of the above. Distributive manufacturing is the last thing this sector of industry wishes to see.
It is so difficult to imagine how designers will protect their work. Even if the digital file is protected and secured, the final physical object is not. On the other hand, designers may find small local businesses increasingly willing to hire them for small batch runs of products or customisation work. They also have the possibility to add 3D printing services into their current skill sets and businesses.
There are interesting times ahead. The media is on-side for the moment but for how long when some of the consequences become more than speculation and the impact to traditional business models is real. 3D printing has the possibility to democratise and bring a lot more egality to the world but no time for cynicism.
There is one industry not mentioned but it will wait for another article – crime and piracy. 3D printing is going to be used for crime and we all know the saying about what pays …