3D printing is a hot topic at the moment. The industry started to use this technology more than 30 years ago, but prices dropped considerably, to the point it is safe to say everyone will have a 3D printer at home in a matter of years. The same pattern happened for traditional printer. In the late 1970’s, an inkjet printer was $1000! Current 3D printers are today around $2000. (http://goo.gl/DTNzS, http://goo.gl/3o3mG )
Before continuing, let’s have a brief reminder of 3D printing. A 3D object model file is processed and “sliced” into many layers. For each layer, a printer drops bits of plastic, metal (or even chocolate!) just like a traditional printer would do with ink. Having this set of 2D layers printed on top of each other recreates the 3D object. The process takes a few hours before you can hold one of the objects below in your hands.
Image from the ted.com talk by “Lisa Harouni”
Technically, you can print only objects relatively small, but you can make big objects by assembling smaller ones. In fact, there is even some researches about printing a space station from the moon, using the local soil as a building material (http://goo.gl/J49HH)
Even more intriguing, there are also researches at the MIT about “4D printing”, whereby you print a “dynamic” object that is able to change its shape later on (http://goo.gl/JUwcy)
Disruptions and Opportunities
There are 2 phases in this revolution: the first one is companies being able to propose affordable 3D printed objects for the consumer. Highly complex objects that were either too costly to have or simply impossible to produce can now be in everyone’s shopping list. It is also a way to have highly customized objects for the consumers. For example, the company “Sculpteo” is proposing an iPhone case with a shape based on a picture the consumer took from his phone. (http://goo.gl/5XWQw)
Extract from the “Sculpteo” video
The second part is people having their own printer at home. At the moment, companies still own part of the manufacturing chain but soon consumers will be completely independent. There will be a MIY (Manufacture It Yourself) and DIY (Do It Yourself) industry. Since the starting point of those goods is digital files, the industry will have to face similar challenges than the music industry did, as people are technically able to share those files without restrictions.
As a matter of fact, “thepiratebay” website already has a 3D models section to download commercials items for free (http://goo.gl/F8Z8j) Giving the power of creating objects so easily raises not only copyright issues, but has multiple, sometimes unexpected consequences, For example, the project “Wiki Weapons” aims to propose gun model files for people to print their weapon and there is already a proof of concept (http://goo.gl/ta52A)
Relationship with smartphones
10 years ago, who would have thought millions of people would have a gyroscope, accelerometer and GPS in their phone ? It would have sounded completely useless. I expect many phones in the future to have a 3D scanner. Even today, some smartphones are able to take 3D videos or pictures (http://goo.gl/SWS5u) Technologies also exists to converts a set of 2D pictures into a 3D environment (http://goo.gl/aE0VE). In other words, people may soon be able to scan objects around them to make a copy. Do you need an extra key for the door? Do you want a pottery that you just saw in a store? Your kid wants more LEGO© pieces to play with? As you can see, the implications are far from a game and can reach many domains from our daily lives.
The phone cameras can also be used to track your hands movement as you design or customize a 3D model, as a Kinect© device can do for example. In the laptops domain, HP plans on using the “Leap Motion©” sensor (http://goo.gl/V9FHf) so this technology could only take a few months/years to move from laptops to your favourite device.
Some smartphones also have 3D screen that do not require wearing glasses, so in the future you would be able to visualize your object, potentially with augmented reality. In other words It will be possible to know if the pottery we talked about previously goes well in your living room before it even exists. (http://goo.gl/TTXey)
The 3D printing affordable technologies combined with mobile phone 3D scanning and display future hardware is going to have an incredible impact. It will be disruptive for a wide range of industries as well as our daily lives. Businesses can take this as a chance to reinvent themselves and explore new opportunities, while consumer and end-user will have more possibilities than ever before, in their hands.
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