As prices have gone down, we’ve seen a wide variety of clever uses of additive or 3D printing. Fashion accessories, casts for broken limbs, and houses are just some of the applications that have hit the news.
The technology still has real limits. The process is painfully slow. The range of materials (and their physical properties) is small. Costs are still too high. And results can be problematic, with small errors adding up to frustration, humor, and perhaps art. One of the biggest limits is conceptual. For those used to building three-dimensional devices in a traditional manner, the switchover can be difficult.
In the traditional subtractive manufacturing world, you take a blank and cut away at it – slicing, grinding, and sanding — until you get what you are looking for. The stuff (wood, metal, plastic, etc.) is less important to cost savings than the labor and the steps.
In the 3D world of additive manufacturing, the more stuff there is, the more time and material it takes to produce a finished piece. The economics are reversed. The limitations, rules of thumb, and short-cuts need to be rethought. So, for instance, instead of sharp edges, rounded corners are less expensive.
Industry has jumped in with both feet, with prototyping leading the way. They can afford the expense of going up the learning curve and investing in equipment, including custom printers.
The story is different for personal 3D printing. None of the limits diminish the potential, but they do delay its broad adoption. As with previous digital technologies (e.g., social networking, animation, gaming, printing missing cat and yard sale posters), current challenges can be distracting and can make it difficult to see which applications might take off in the personal sphere, once industry has solved some of the problems.
Who thinks in three-dimensions? It’s a limited (perhaps artificially limited) capability. Most of us are not “makers.” But we do have some: Artists, hobbyists, jewelry makers, woodworkers, designers (including fashion), prop masters, and do-it-yourselfers (customizing and repairs). Some of these people work more in arts than in craft. They invent and imagine as they build, and those elements aren’t easily integrated into a toolset for the masses.
However, as was scene with personal printing, created elements can be shared to allow personalization and customization. With that in mind, here are a few guesses on what might become the killer app (the application that will spur widespread adoption) for 3D printing:
Toy-of-the-week club – Imagine a download site that has new designs for puzzles, game pieces, and action figures available on a regular basis. If the price is right, these can become “must-haves” for every kid or gamer.
Souvenirs and premiums – Today, a big part of success in popular culture — movies, television, music, games, sports – is tied to (sometime exclusive) giveaways. Software and extras (added movie scenes, variations on songs, scorekeeping charts, and posters) are already available online to build loyalty. In person, items like key chains, bobblehead dolls, pens, water bottles, stress balls, and mugs are given away as promotions. If a site were available to the plans for these, people could make the items they love for themselves. This would be a low-cost way to advertise and deepen connections with customers/clients.
Monster mash-up – Perhaps the most distinctive opportunity will be the ability to combined 3D shapes into new things. Already, devotees of costume play use 3D printing to create armor. Imagine the possibility of creating the various parts of a helmet (visor, neck guard, emblem, crest, chin guard, etc.) were available for designs of different eras and nations. Take that a step further so these elements could be put together whatever the user wanted, and manufactured in the desired size. Of course, this could be taken even further with morphing software that could suggest new helmet halfway between one worn in third century Rome and one worn by a 16th century samurai. This approach to mash-ups could be adapted to jewelry, game pieces, and even garden tools.
Education – This might be the most promising and culturally valuable. The ability to have kids explore and create objects they can hold and manipulate could bring lessons home in ways that are otherwise impossible. Though schools may have centralized 3D printers available to provide artifacts for lessons, my guess is that the big market here will be for parents who are focused on enrichment education.
There are other possibilities. For instance, in the face of rapid changes to household accessories and devices, it could become standard to have plans for pieces online, along with instructions on how to make repairs or enhancements. A more 3D savvy populace may hack their environments with custom storage containers, birthday sculptures instead of cards, or even some social networking applications or plans that go viral. We might even use 3D printing for meals. Who knows?
One thing is certain. The widespread adoption of 3D printing by industry is bringing us closer to personal printing every day as challenges, costs, and the need for specialized training continue to drop.