Are we ready for 3D printing?

There are many different types of 3D printer, but they all work in a similar way – using a virtual 3D model as a template to print out a physical object, usually by building up layer-by-layer from powdered plastic or similar material.

Not just plastic - these objects have been printed out using raw sugar (source: Wikimedia Commons)Until now, 3D printers have either been prohibitively techie (available in kit form or by using open-source components such as the Arduino) or prohibitively expensive. With the recent announcement of ‘home’ 3D printers at a more accessible price-point (between $1000-2000), the technology looks set to break into the mainstream.

It isn’t hard to see the tremendous potential for 3D printing to disrupt existing models of production, retail and distribution. In the current supply-chain model, a company controls the production and distribution of a product, pricing it to deliver a proft margin over their total costs. In a world in which the home 3D printer is as ubiquitous as the microwave oven, this entire model evaporates. Instead, consumers will pay to download 3D models (or will download open-source versions for free) of products which they can then print out at home.

When the supplier is no longer responsible for manufacturing or distribution, the whole current retail model starts to look shaky. When the means of cost-effective production are in the hands of artesan designers, consumers may well choose the quirky, bespoke or unique over the mass-produced. In extremis, the business model underpinning the High Street may well collapse as people minimise their retail time and maximise their leisure time by simply printing out products at home while they watch the TV (or tablet).

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