3D printing – the next big disruptor?


Padlock and key

It’s well documented, and quite frankly, voraciously experienced, in almost all aspects of modern life, how disruptive the influence of the internet and the world wide web have been. It’s also well documented how information and knowledge acquisition, at the species level, has been ever accelerating leading to more discoveries of disruptive technology, arriving at ever shorter intervals.

3D printing is a good candidate for being the next big one (or one of the next big ones). There’s even speculation that the changes it might spawn, could be as wide reaching and transformative as the internet itself (although as an aside, I rather like the mischievous assertion from Ha-Joon Chang that the washing machine had a greater impact than the internet).

Certainly the sort of people who look at these things for governments, have been looking at these things for governments and they have been talking in exactly these kind of terms. The next big disruption. In fact they have been looking in depth for some years now.

This comprehensive overview was produced for the US Office of Science and Technology. This wonderfully named report, it will be awesome if they don’t screw it up, provides a very clean and neutral view of the IP protection issues as current law stands. Both these documents were produced in 2010.

So, let’s begin by defining exactly what it is.

3D printing is the machinery and process that allows us to build 3 dimensional objects using technology that prints material as successive layers building up into potentially complex artefacts. All that is required is a computer, a data file and a materials printer. Which, if we are being honest, doesn’t sound terribly revolutionary?

What’s is new, however, is the fact that the material printer part of the equation, is approaching levels of accessibility, function and cost that make it attractive for usage at the entirely domestic level.

Out of the 3 factors cost is clearly the easiest to measure and most fluid, function is fairly easy to describe and accessibility largely a function of the previous two.

A Reprap kit from thereprapkitstore.co.uk, which would need assembly, would set you back £435 (at least as of 22/3/12).


A makerbot replicator might set you back between $1800 to $2000. Prices go up from there, I’ve seen mention of printers in Universities costing $800k and being described as obsolete

So, whereas it’s not pocket money, the lower end of the spectrum certainly is the sort of money that people commonly spend on household utility products of a complex nature. And, of course, it’s only going to get cheaper.

A nice overview of the function available in today’s market can be demonstrated by a quick whizz through the Reprap project itself. A 3D printing machine expressly designed such that it has the ability to print almost all the parts required for its own assembly. Moreover it’s an open source project that to date has been populated with very enthusiastic hobbyists whose hobby allows them to make alterations to the machine, in exactly the same way that open source code can be amended through interactive communities. Allied with the communicative power of the internet the Reprap project isn’t just inherently self-replicating it’s also, via its project DNA self-improving. If you think it’d be great if that nozzle was just 1mm wider? Fine, you have in your possession a machine that can make you that exact part!

If you can use a £400 pound machine to make something as complicated as the Reprap then I think it’s safe to suggest that the functionality offered by this concept is indeed starting to look like the sort of value that, eventually, might achieve a significant domestic penetration.

However great it is that we might all have these machines at home one day, if we consider 3D printing only from the domestic angle we will miss a lot of the potential. The vanguard of this technology change, as with many other previously, is small tech businesses and academia.

So whereas 3D printing is starting to become available as a domestic appliance, it is also highly instructive that we try to look at this technology at different geographic levels, which may well operate and innovate over different timescales, potentially quicker timescales.

I can imagine 3D printing at 3 levels.

  • The home
  • Local business
  • Specialist business and academia

The geographic location of specialist printing could be quite disparate. They will be selling scarce skills and machinery to produce high level specification prints that will likely be shipped to the customer. As the breadth of the wider technology base increases, and we can use a wider range of materials, or as has been show recently, we can print at larger or smaller scales, I can see the specialist sector being very interesting and disruptive in and of itself.

Tiny cathedrals

A lot of this change, at local and specialist levels, will be happening underneath the surface for most of us. For example take any currently available plastic toy product, mass manufactured in China and shipped across the world which you might buy for your child for £12.99 at some online retailer, or high street for that matter. Would it matter to you if that object had been fabricated in Sheffield instead as a result of the Chinese manufacturer licencing the data file to a small family business? You’d still have to buy it through the internet or in retail. What’s the difference? Does the method of production mean anything for today’s customer, will they (we) care? Probably not, if we’re being honest with ourselves.

Indeed, the fact is that the world’s first franchised 3D printing company already exists, in Brazil! So we really aren’t talking about a few years hence. These changes are underway right now. Imprimate is a 3D printing company providing services to architects, engineers and designers, producing bespoke / one-time 3D models and operating on a franchise basis.

Imprimate is a business built around a wonderful example of one of the key benefits  that 3D printing brings at the local and specialist level, and subsequently to society in general, quick prototyping. Indeed quick prototyping may well be one of the key business problems that drives a great deal of development revenue into 3D technology itself.

To understand why quick prototyping is so valuable consider the world of formula one racing. It’s a world where cutting edge technology is constantly being brought to bear season on season on season.

Whether it be the shape of a wing panel, or a brand new engine widget with a peculiar shape the prototyping cycle can be massively reduced because of the speed of production via 3D printing, in some cases from 3 weeks to 2 days. This allows test programs to batch test ideas and produce many small variations (or large for that matter!). This acceleration in R&D programs is enormously valuable. Formula One has been using quick prototyping via 3D printing since the 1980’s, but now it’s available to a much wider range of industries and businesses.

But say you do have a printer at home. How is that going to change things for you?

The dying art of DIY is going to get a shot in the arm. We are living in a society that has seen a marked increase in disposability over recent times, either through excessive and unjustifiable consumption (loadsamoney!!!!) or through product design or product complexity.  Say you accidently knock your Dyson vacuum cleaner down the stairs and crack the plastic container of the main chamber. It’s a trivial job to replace it, if only you had a spare one to replace it with! Today you’d either, send it off to a repair shop, wait for the part in the post or throw it away and buy a new one. At some stage in the not so distant future you’ll be able to simply print yourself a replacement instead.

We might see custom fit products that can evolve. Children’s shoes get replaced a lot as their feet grow. This can be a problem of the past. Imagine getting a data file built to your child’s foot specification (maybe someone will build a machine that allows you to scan your child’s feet and converts that data to a 3D object data file) and containing the data (and permissions ?) for the latest Nike trainers. As your child grows you could either reprint the shoe at a slightly larger magnification, or if you wanted to you could rescan the child’s feet. The cost implication is only the marginal increase in raw material.

No. 8 in the list

Want to have a different dining table every 2 weeks? In a world of 3D printing you’d just smash it up into the component raw material and start again. Same material, new table, fraction of the cost!

Want a truly unique table? One that fits very specifically into that weirdly shaped corner in your kitchen? You can have that. Want to change it every month? You can do that too.

That beautiful suit / dress you liked that is now a size too small? Chop it up and press the button.

All of a sudden the fashion for jackets changes, it’s now all about 3 buttons not 2. But you love the cloth on your 2 button jacket….no problem.

Now, these are all speculation, fairly solid speculation I’d say but nothing here is the 3D equivalent of Facebook, or Google. But then, I don’t think anyone could have predicted Facebook, in its current form, even 10 years ago. It’s highly plausible that the most impactful changes that 3D will spawn will be similarly unforecastable, a good measure of a new paradigm. We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime we can continue to ponder. There will be more subtle changes as well.

There will inevitably be some emerging hacker culture, both in terms of illegally obtaining shaping data, but also in the cultural sense, a driving force within the melting pot that is modern culture.

Many bloggers have hypothesised illegal 3D scanning. The idea that a new product on release will be scanned in shop and the scan data used to make illegally distributed files for said product. That might happen, it might not. But illegal scanning aside for the moment, I’m pretty sure that portable and cost attractive scanners will be available.

I can imagine a certain kind of object fetishism. An obsession reminiscent of the obsessions many designers display today. I can see hackers scanning and trading 3D curved spaces, as artefacts in and of themselves. I can imagine a need, an obsessive need, to scan these, wherever they are found. Not even for commercial gain necessarily, although that is quite likely too.

But in terms of culture this is how we will get our derivative works. This is how the 3D world will create a new category of mashup, mimicking the flexibility and impermanence of digital media in the realm of the solid and the functional.

It’s also going to put a whole new world of pressure on the already shaky intellectual property law. I’m not going to go into detail here, as it’s all relatively involved and this article does a much better job than I can, but the essential tussle will revolve around the transmission of the data files.

Should we apply patent law? Which in current law is the IP protection built specifically to protect functional objects. Or, does it become an issue that should be resolved by copyright law because the data files are essentially software, because copyright is the appropriate law to apply to software?

The differences are distinctive and essential.

Copyright exists the moment you have created a work. Patents must be applied for. Copyright is protection for the life of the creator +70 years (more in certain circumstances), whereas patent law only protects for 20 years. These are not trivial differences, nor are they the only significant differences.

One thing we can be sure of is that the incumbent industries will lobby for law changes that give them ever greater degrees of protection. Considering that IP law is about protecting innovation as a societal dynamic, as opposed to protecting the revenues of a specific set of industries, I find the prospect of copyright protection levels creeping into the world of functional objects quite disturbing.

I personally think we need a root and branch reform of the whole IP protection system, so I hope that the solution will be neither copyright nor patent, but some new body of law that encapsulates the dynamics of today’s digital world, not yesterday’s industrial one.

If 3D does turn out to be as big as some are suggesting then we can expect to see changes that affect our children. There might be a change to the way we educate children. The logistic process of design will be non-trivial, certainly in the near future, writing CAD files (the current accepted protocol for computerised 3D objects) is a specific skill. It’s a rare person who can simply sit down at a CAD terminal and be proficient from the get go.

Understanding geometry and materials science will, hopefully, become more popular. The connection between imagination, creation and the concepts that facilitate creation should spark fertile minds earlier than before when geometry was abstract, and not a route to the latest [insert latest cool toy].

It reminds of Daniel Kahneman’s observation about the future of science.

The only way I know to predict the future of science is to look at the choices of beginning graduate students. The specialization they acquire now will probably determine their activities for the next 15-20 years

In years to come we should look to see if the curriculum has indeed developed.

What about standards? When we are all able to fab replacement car parts how will we manage quality control processes for essential mechanical function? Will we need to? What about the public space. Will we see evolving art? Can we open up communal space for creative expression?

Here’s a thought. Imagine ubiquitous 3D printing, creating the new aesthetic linked to the internet of things and serviced by the robot readable world.

Now if that lot hasn’t set your head spinning watch this informative TED talk which takes us into even more seemingly fantastic ground. Except this isn’t a talk about what might happen. This is about what is already happening, highlighting where 3D printing is already making significant contributions.

A lot of very clever people are making some big claims for this technology, and whereas exactly where this goes, how the big issues play out, what unseen innovations arrive is still very much up for debate, it is surely beyond doubt this technology will drive (has already driven) significant changes of some kind, throughout society.


One Comment on “3D printing – the next big disruptor?”

  1. […] or additive manufacturing, is a relatively new technology that has come on leaps and bounds in the last five years. 2017 will be another banner year for AM companies and we can expect incredible advances in both […]

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