On 3D printing, and a world unready

With the recent release of the Makerbot Replicator 2, 3D printing tipped into the real world. It moved from a conceptual idea that geeks and tinkerers would try and explain to their doubtful loved ones into something you can have delivered to your door in a matter of working days.

It changes everything, and I think the world will be caught off guard.

Even now, the ~$2,000 price tag isn’t crazy. It’s more than I would pay, but plenty can afford it. And this time next year the price will halve, the resolution will double and it will print slightly bigger things. Same again the following year. In four or five years’ time, almost anyone who wants one will be able to justify the cost of a 3D printer to themselves.

I always imagined playing with Lego with my son when he’s older, but it might be we’re printing our own Lego-esque blocks too.

I can only begin to imagine what this will do to a business like Lego. Sure, it costs you more to print a block than it costs Lego to print a block, but when you pay £10 for a box of 25 Lego pieces you’re not paying for material; you’re paying for branding, marketing, packaging, tax, distribution and their profit. Printing your own blocks will definitely be cheaper for the end consumer and anyone could learn to model a number of Lego blocks in a 3D modelling tool like Sketchup in less than 4 hours.

I had a quick think about the kinds of businesses who sell cheap-to-make, but expensive-to-sell plastic products whose profit margin is primarily the relationship between their business running costs and the perceived value of the end product. I’m not saying there is no merit to the price we pay for these products today, but we’re definitely not paying manufacturing cost plus ~20%.

3D printing changes everything for businesses like these:

  • Lego
  • Tupperware
  • Airfix
  • People who sell spare parts for things like old washing machines
  • Games Workshop
  • People like Shapeways who sell 3D printing as a service (they’ll soon start to look like photocopying shops do today)
  • And there will be many more

Broke your ladle while cooking? Don’t worry, you can print a new one before you need to serve dinner.

It will almost always be cheaper to ship a solid reel of plastic in it’s compact form than the same amount of plastic in its final product form full of holes and empty spaces.

 

Gorilla Pod and Similar MakerBot tripod

In a few years time, will you buy a Gorilla Pod and wait the tedious ~18hrs for Amazon Prime next day delivery (how slow and old fashioned!) or will you print one out right then and there?

While business is a start, a lens through which we think about the future, 3D printing has implications everywhere in this world.

There’s already been plenty of coverage about the ability to print your own weapons. While you can take the plans off of public websites, the digital files are so easy to share that you can’t take them out of circulation. Weapons may well become less regulated (and regulate-able) then they are today.

In politics, what good are trade sanctions when you can move goods digitally across borders for production locally? Hyper-locally even. This is now impossible to stop. We have to re-think international trade.

In development, what does this mean for people who live in rural Kenya. Do aid organizations deliver end products they think will be useful, or spools of printing plastic to people in need?

Maybe we’ll print our own artificial limbs?

So what skills do we need to be developing? 

I don’t think we all need to be taking a course in CAD, because it’s so easy to share 3D files. They’re smaller than MP3s and much smaller than videos and we don’t seem to have any trouble moving these around the world. A few thousand skilled contributors will produce the bulk of the designs used by the billions of people around the planet. Look at all things you can already download and print today.

What’s the future for the businesses affected?


If I ran Lego, I’d be thinking about how to phase out manufacturing while retaining brand and thought leadership. Not immediately, but probably within five years, ten at most. I’d focus on selling amazing plans for kits and give up on trying to own the right to the blocks themselves. The overall size of the business would shrink, but it might be possible to maintain the profits. Selling plans digitally would hugely cut costs and by embracing this new world, Lego can be a relevant and meaningful part of it. Most likely though, they’ll unleash a team of lawyers on any website that offers 3D models of anything that looks like Lego. People will print their own blocks anyway, sales will decline and there will be plenty of negative press coverage about the company who tries to sue the 10 year old girl who made her own Lego-like designs for her friends birthday. I don’t say this because I think that’s a Lego like trait, but because it’s the way all large corporations today tend to behave when they come under threat.

In many ways, the future will be more different than we can possibly imagine.

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