We first discussed 3D printing in 2008, highlighting potential applications, the increasing range of materials being used, and the growing complexity of products which could be printed. That progress continues creating both opportunities and challenges the impacts of which companies need to assess across their product ranges and supply chains.

What is changing?

3D printing, or additive manufacture as it is also known, creates objects from a digital design using a machine that looks not unlike a conventional ink-jet printer, but using materials instead of ink to build up the object.

One of the critical changes occurring is the growing sophistication of the equipment, but also the fall in price and size. The $500 3D printer has now been made; as has a truly portable one that fits in a suitcase. This changes the level of accessibility and affordability.

The scale of what we can 3D print is also changing. At one end, the potential to 3D print a house cheaply and quickly is emerging – an application would be the production of emergency housing made in situ – which could then also be designed to ‘fit’ local terrain. Such an approach could be adapted for low cost housing, radical house renovations or high end bespoke room fittings.

At the other end of the scale are the development of 3D nano-printing and the use of cells. A recent experiment ‘broke the record’ for nano-printing, by making a model of a formula 1 car at nano-scale. Being able to operate effectively at that scale could revolutionise not only material sciences but almost any area of manufacture.

The hope is that within a decade organs could be printed.

The first medical application using cells was in burns, where cells were printed directly into the burn to aid healing. More complex vascular structures and even muscles are now being printed as are bones prior to joint replacements, so that the new joint can be made to fit better. The hope is that within a decade organs could be printed. Add in the move to 3D print drugs to order and a potential route to personalised medicine begins to emerge.

But there is also a dark side: criminals can equally easily use the technology. Intellectual Property will become more vulnerable as the potential to scan any object – even using a mobile phone, and then replicate it could make everything from unique art pieces to film products to fashion items vulnerable to counterfeiting. Perhaps more sinister is the potential to make undetectable weapons – knives and guns – of non-metallic materials, which can then be smuggled into planes etc.; or to replicate keys simply from a photo. Even electronic items are not safe: thieves have already used 3D printing to skim and replicate cash cards at ATM machines.

Why is this important?

The sheer range of potential applications and the speed at which they are multiplying makes this a potential revolution in the making, and indeed it is being heralded as such by some. Jeff Bezos has, for example, invested $10 million. One forecast estimates that the 3D printing market will be worth $5.2 billion by 2020. Others are decrying it, saying that it is hype not substance; that it will stay stuck in a niche and not truly take off. Time will tell.

But the crime related applications alone make it a significant issue. Finding ways to authenticate products – perhaps with digital signatures, and new ways to detect materials and weapons will be critical.

If it does take off, 3D printing has the capacity to transform manufacturing, making it far more widely distributed and localised – as well as customised. Such a change would radically affect warehousing and distribution. There are already moves towards open source hardware, along the lines of open-source software, whereby components are made and shared at much lower cost. This could radically alter the cost models of many sectors.

3D printing has the potential to be disruptive and companies will examine where they could be affected – for good or ill.

Skills and employment will also change. Totally new jobs – materials designers, nano-designers, food designers, prosthetics designers, product authenticators, 3D print shop owners… all will be in demand. And more traditional jobs may disappear, as machines replicate themselves.

As the costs fall and sophistication rises – so new opportunities and challenges will arise. Whether the scale of revolution some are predicting emerges, remains to be seen; what is certain is that 3D printing has the potential to be disruptive and companies will examine where they could be affected – for good or ill.

By Sheila Moorcroft

About the author

Sheila has over 20 years experience helping clients capitalise on change – identifying changes in their business environment, assessing the implications and responding effectively to them. As Research Director at Shaping Tomorrow she has completed many futures projects on topics as diverse as health care, telecommunications, innovation management, and premium products for clients in the public and private sectors. Sheila also writes a weekly Trend Alert to highlight changes that might affect a wide range of organisations.