3-D printing seems to have made everyone’s shortlist of “disruptive technologies,” but the real disruption yet to materialize is at the consumer level. The desktop production facility has enjoyed a high profile for its potential to change the face of manufacturing and retailing. Like the early iteration of a miracle technology that might be seen on Star Trek, the computer-controlled devices can build real three-dimensional things right before your eyes — no assembly plant required.
Some see the 3-D printer, which stacks layers of plastic or other materials on top of each other to make objects from a digital file, as a gateway to the democratization of manufacturing — disrupting the traditional model of making and bringing goods to market.
“To be sure, 3-D printing has received its share of hype,” Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Co., told The Wall Street Journal in response to a piece that asked experts whether the technology could live up to the image its advocates had created for it. “But in this case, we think that the excitement could be justified.”
3-D printing made the McKinsey Global Institute’s list of 12 technologies that have a high potential to become economically disruptive over the next decade. Consumer use of 3-D printing could have an economic impact of up to $300 billion a year by 2025, with sales of 3-D printed consumer products reaching $4 trillion that year.
One day, cottage industry manufacturers might churn out bespoke goods in tiny production runs unattainable with traditional methods. Or manufacturing might get even more local — showing up on the actual consumer’s desktop to print out a new smartphone, food processor or even a dress after a shopper purchases the object’s digital design file online.
The ripples of 3-D printing are likely to be felt in everything from toys to jewelry, ceramics and simple apparel. But at this point, most consumer 3-D printing applications focus on the things one can make with plastics, the building material overwhelmingly used by the current crop of printers.
For the disruption to truly reach consumers, significant technological challenges still must be overcome. Most home and small business 3-D printers can produce objects using a limited palette of four different types of plastic. While this is sufficient for making toys, art, some simple replacement parts like shower rings, and even musical instruments, consumer manufacturing is unlikely to take off until the machine can print conductive materials.
Researchers report they are steadily making headway on printing circuits and sensors. In the U.S., North Carolina State University scientists have developed a conductive metal alloy that can be squeezed out of a 3-D printer head and solidifies at room temperature. Another team at Harvard has been able to 3-D print a working lithium-ion battery the size of a grain of sand. And in Europe, a consortium sponsored by the European Commission has successfully produced a plastic doped with supermaterial graphene that makes it conductive enough to be used in low-power sensors.
“We’re now upscaling the material to an industrial-level output,” says Jonas Hansen, an engineer at the Danish Technological Institute. “We can use it for thermal conductive applications and low amperage electric applications like building sensors directly into constructs.”
Beyond using multiple materials with different characteristics, the production process on individual machines needs to become faster—building small, simple objects on a current unit can take hours—and more intuitive.
Home Depot or Kinko’s?
Once the technology improves and starts producing goods such as electronics and other more complex items, there are two potential routes 3-D printing could take to go mainstream.
In the first, the technology and the software used to operate a consumer desktop unit at home will become so intuitive that printing in three dimensions won’t be markedly different than sending a document to a regular two-dimensional printer. This would help move the 3-D printing process from the realm of dedicated hobbyists and niche users to a wider market.
While the at-home 3-D printing market is still nascent, some rumbling sounds point to its potential. Home Depot recently announced it would offer MakerBot 3-D printers for sale in a dozen stores in California, Illinois and New York. The offering could represent a significant step into the mainstream for the technology and for MakerBot, one of the leaders in the small but growing personal 3-D printer space. In another sign, startup MakerBot was recently purchased by Stratasys, a publicly traded manufacturer of industrial- and office-based rapid prototyping and digital manufacturing systems whose revenue in 2013 reached almost $500 million.
The second path would see 3-D printing technology not quite make it into homes, but just down the street. In what might be called the Kinko’s model, the neighborhood printing shop would serve as a small-batch consumer manufacturing hub. Entrepreneurs around the world are already getting into the game. From Copenhagen to Colorado Springs, storefronts are popping up that sell 3-D printing services, machines and parts.
Until those and other paths to consumerization take shape, debate will continue about whether consumer 3-D printing will change the nature of commerce or won’t become much more than hype. The authors of the McKinsey analysis, take a more nuanced view, saying that while 3-D printing could transform how products are designed, built, distributed and sold, the process could take years. “Nonetheless, rapidly improving technology and a variety of possible delivery channels for 3D-printed goods (such as using the local print shop) could ultimately result in many products being 3D-printed.”
What 3-D printing will ultimately mean for consumers is still largely in the hands of technologists trying to overcome significant hurdles and a market that is naturally reluctant to change. But one thing is certain: A long road lies between where we are now and unlocking all the potential that consumer 3-D printing offers.