Manufacturing, long one of our key topics here, continues to evolve. We’ve written before about “additive manufacturing,” more commonly known as 3D printing, and a recent article by the editors at Bloomberg points out where all this is heading.
As we’ve noted before, the basic concept behind 3D printing is that you download a digital instruction file for a design and, using one of many available “printing” devices on the market today, the machine very slowly (but increasingly faster these days)sprays a material, usually a special plastic, through a heated nozzle in slow patterns in order to create actual objects. There’s been a lot of press lately about the law student in Texas who published full instructions on the Internet for printing out a usable gun. While he was subsequently forced to take the file down, it had already been downloaded by over 100,000people. Such are the dangerous implications of this unbottled genie of technology.
But beyond the controversy, we think (as does Bloomberg) that the potential is, in their words, “stunning.” Already global sales of 3D printing are said to have reached $2.2 billion, and are expected to triple by 2019. A company called Kor Ecologic is producing a car – the Urbee 2 – which, when completed will weigh 1,200 pounds, and be comprised of about 40 pieces of thermoplastic, requiring minimal time and labor to assemble.
Bloomberg’s question in an article published in their magazine’s May 20 issue is “whether the technology will transform manufacturing more broadly.” We think long term it will. While today’s printers are slow and the materials expensive and inconsistent, you just know those wrinkles will be worked out in time (just look at computers in general!). Longer term, it’s a potentially disruptive force in supply chains, when you think about the reduced need for warehousing, inventory planning, shortened supply chains and reduced assembly lines. There’s potential for elimination of a lot of waste, shipping and pollution long-term. Those kinds of trends always win out in the end.
Bloomberg also points out how down the road (a “few decades” in their view) engineers “should be able to blend raw materials in new ways, endow products with nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, and create objects that interact with their physical environments.” Think armor with embedded sensors or a turbine blade that monitors its own temperature.
If you really think about it, it’s the fulfillment of the promise of “mass customization” toward which manufacturing has been slowly evolving for decades – and only more rapidly of late.
Of course, the downside, besides our earlier make-your-own-gun example, includes the intellectual property aspects, with so many items subject to possible counterfeiting, and all the ensuing lawsuits that are bound to follow – thus likely making attorneys as a group one of the beneficiaries of this growing technology.
Think too about the implications for medical devices, vehicle parts, and homemade replacement parts. The list goes on. And finally, as Bloomberg reports, this: a recent report from Washington think tank called the Atlantic Council predicts that 3D printing “has the potential to be as disruptive as the personal computer and the Internet.”
And we can’t even count the number of careers and companies those have launched.