Friday, October 05, 2012

The Real Disruption of 3D Printing

The latest “disruption” people seem to be talking a lot about is 3D printing. A lot of the attention has been caused by a group of people calling themselves Defense Distributed trying to use 3D printing to build a firearm. The attention is somewhat caused by fearful concern about easy access to firearms (Plans to print a gun halted as 3D printer is seized) and then a fear for destroying the manufacturing industry (Home 3D Printing Is Killing The Manufacturing Industry). Both fears are, I think, overblown though they do “sell papers” as the saying goes. More than that though I think they miss the real potential for disruption which is the creation of new things.

Firearms have been around for hundreds of years and the means to make them have been around even longer. Anyone with proper machine tools and a little skill can make a firearm. People in the third world do it all the time as it is not a skill limited to first world manufacturing centers.

When 3D printers get good enough to build “anything” then manufacturers will still be able to buy the best machines and the best materials and under cut the price of homemade items for all but very small numbers of items. For a lot of items the assembly is as expensive, if not more so, than the actual creation of parts. So I doubt the manufacturing industry is quaking in their boots.

Right now 3D printing is limited in materials used, limited in precision, and time limited. One can wait hours for even a fairly small part. Over time this will change and we will see faster, more precise machines that use a wider variety of materials. I’m not an expert but I did have classes in patternmaking, foundry, machine shop, sheet metal shop and materials science so I have some idea about what goes into making things. Not everyone thing can be created by layering bits of material on top of other bits of material. So get over the idea that people will be making Rolex watches in their basement anytime soon.

The possibility does exist for real innovation and real disruption in the creation of new things. By new I mean things that haven’t been done before. Things that people were able to visualize but not able to construct. What sort of things? If I knew  that I would invest in a 3D printer today and start creating them.

But art work is one thing that springs to mind. 3 dimensional art that goes beyond traditional sculpture. With a 3D printer you don’t have to have years of practice working with wood or stone or metal to make things come out the way you visualize them in your head. Rather you can use computer graphics tools to do the work. Actually this might lead to a new class of computer graphics design tools which would be a plus by itself.

On a more practical basis being able to make gears and shapes and other parts that are not available off the shelf or that are too expensive in small quantities will make the creation, at least in prototype form, practical for many more people than can do so today. Need to scale up or down? Ask the machine to do it for you. Creating models in less time and to better specifications than you could easily do by hand or afford to have model makers create for you would open all sorts of doors for affordable experimentation.

The future of disruption via 3D printers is not by copying things that already exist but by creating things that were never created before.

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