The 3D printing industry is set to receive a major boost in 2014. The expiration of key patents, covering the lowest cost 3D printing technology known as "laser sintering", will open this market up to innovation and lower the price of 3D printing devices. From novelty items to prosthetic limbs and even NASA printed rocket parts, 3D printed devices have proven capable of a versatile range of applications spanning industries. However, slow printing speeds, relatively high manufacturing costs, and a rough product finish have been a deterrent to mass adoption. As a result, 3D printing is currently best used for rapid prototyping. Laser sintering in open source is set to change just that.
In addition to driving the price of devices downward, the mass adoption of laser sintering will also revitalize the 3D printing process. A high resolution in all three dimensions means goods produced via laser sintering can be sold as finished products. Consequently, the drop in price, inevitable flood of Chinese 3D printers, the mass customization and commodification of 3D printed goods will usher in an age of consumer-focused manufacturing. It wouldn't be inaccurate to state that this proliferation of 3D printing devices will do for the production of goods what the social web did for the production of content. But just as Web 2.0 did not end traditional media, it is unlikely that 3D printing will render conventional manufacturing obsolete. Significant changes, nonetheless, are most certainly afoot.
Rapid strides in software development and materials science are going to accelerate the digitization of manufacturing. 3D printing will all but eliminate the logistical issues surrounding availability, obsolete design, and elusive spare parts. Furthermore, a single 3D printed item will cost the same as bulk manufactured 3D products. Smaller companies, previously unable to compete with richer, more established organizations, can now create their own niche by offering consumers personalized products at a substantially reduced price. The larger organizations, too, are factoring 3D printing into their overall strategy. A leading British high street retail chain recently revealed its plans of making 3D printing available in-store. This would allow consumers to design, produce, and purchase their very own 3D printed products, all in the comfort of their local store.
It is also wise to consider the potential impact of the young, emergent future workforce. Schools are now proposing the addition of 3D printing to secondary school syllabus. High school students will have the ability to bring ideas to physical fruition using these advanced techniques. User-generated content (UGC) will then make an impactful entry into the physical world. The resultant industry will see cleaner, emptier factories, streamlined processes and, with a focus on adding value, a substantial transformation in the politics of jobs.
The first and second industrial revolutions proved that it is process, and not product, that stimulates change. The democratization of the most advanced and functional additive 3D printing technology could, quite possibly, once again change the face of manufacturing as we know it. Is 3D printing the catalyst for the third industrial revolution? Please use the comments section below to tell us what you think.