3D printing has impacted design almost from its beginning. The technology has long been used to speed up the process on creating and refining designs – some refer to 3D printing as rapid prototyping.
It’s a radically different way to approach creation: the printers build materials up rather than by cutting away as in traditional manufacturing.
But as new printing technologies have developed, as the range of 3D-printable materials has expanded, more people are turning to 3D printing as the solution for their products.
These people include both local inventors and businesses and huge enterprises such as GE.
Never Before Seen
That’s a slight exaggeration. Most items created by 3D printers have existed in some way before. 3D printing is just making the design better.
For example, how can we improve aeronautics? We all know how expensive it is to travel by plane. 3D printing allows aviation manufacturers to build planes that are lighter. And they can do it without compromising on material strength. In fact, these materials are stronger.
The result is a plane that costs less to manufacture. And the lighter weight means it uses less fuel.
But 3D printing is impacting original designs, as well. Especially for consumer products.
Increasing Consumer Power
3D printing puts the power of design directly into the consumers’ hands in these two ways:
- Companies can easily customize their designs to fit the customer’s preferences
- Customers can design and print their own objects
Let’s say your off-the-shelf products are only available in black, gray, and blue. But you have one customer who really wants green. This customer may even be willing to pay more to have your product in their favorite color.
Right now it’s not possible to give the customer exactly what they want – unless the customer is willing to pay waaay more than the list price. But with 3D printing, you can easily tweak the 3D file to create one green product (provided the product is printed with a material that is available in green). And you don’t have to change out parts in the machinery to make it happen.
The same could happen for custom sizes. Or producing medical devices where exact fit is made possible by 3D printing. We can improve quality of life for many patients – and save lives, period.
DIY 3D Printing
Desktop 3D printers still aren’t common. But they don’t have to be. The day is coming where 3D printing is offered alongside laminating at copy shops. UPS is already looking into making this happen in their UPS Stores.
But numerous services exist online offering 3D printing on demand. Consumers can send these companies 3D files and receive their printed objects days later. (Our own LAYR software doesn’t even require consumers have 3D files – LAYR converts any image into a 3D file.)
The Future of Copyright
Of course, this power leads to other issues. The most notable is copyright and intellectual property ownership.
If consumers create and print from their own 3D files, many of the objects that will be printed may be protected by a copyright. At what point does printing from a 3D file you created (that is based on an idea from somewhere else) become stealing? This has already become a problem for the website Thingiverse, according to this NPR article.
The Future of Business: Designer-to-Consumer?
As 3D printers become more available, the future of shopping may be that consumers work directly with designers to create the objects they want. Then they take those designs to be printed.
Maybe that won’t happen. But 3D printing is definitely shifting how companies and consumers alike view the design and manufacturing process.