7 ways 3d printing will change the world

Look out - a disruptive new technology is about to send shockwaves through the world of business. Here are some of the ways in which additive manufacturing is likely to shape the future.

Only 18 months ago, few people had heard of 3D printing. Now it seems everyone is talking about the impact of this revolutionary technology, described as the future of manufacturing by US President Barack Obama and ‘the second industrial revolution’ by New Scientist magazine.

Using 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is also known, successive layers of a material – such as plastic or paper – are built up to create a complete object. Products can be printed out from software designs available on the internet or existing objects can be scanned and replicated.

Although the technology has been around for several decades, it is only in the last few years, as printer prices have become more affordable, that it has started to take off. Low-cost machines are now available for both the professional and consumer markets, and 3D printing is likely to see even faster growth in 2014, when key patents on a technique known as laser sintering are due to expire.

Here are seven ways in which this new trend could shape the future of business:

1. A move to more local production
While it is not yet in danger of replacing mass manufacturing, 3D printing will encourage production closer to the point of consumption – in some cases, in people’s homes. Richard A. D’Aveni, a strategy expert from the Tuck School of Business in the US, says that even if the unit production cost is higher, it will be more than offset by the saving on shipping costs.

“Whereas cars today are made by just a few hundred factories around the world, they might one day be made in every metropolitan area. Parts could be made at dealerships and repair shops,” he explains. D’Aveni says this means that retailers and businesses right through the supply chain will need to rethink their strategy.

2. More customised products
Additive manufacturing lends itself to the production of customised goods, and could allow us greater individuality in everything from our clothes to our cars and home interiors. A French company, Sculpteo, has launched the world’s first 3D printing mobile app, which integrates the work of professional designers with end users’ personal data. Its CEO Clément Moreau says: “This new approach to mass customisation is leading the world into the new age of industrial design.”

3. A new era of creativity
Additive manufacturing opens up new possibilities for amateurs and professionals alike to follow their imagination, and could stimulate the creativity of a new generation of artists, designers and engineers. Vivek Wadhwa, VP of Innovations and Research at Singularity University says: “We are about to see a renaissance in design. Imagine what Leonardo da Vinci could have designed if he had an iPad and 3D printer. That is what millions of creative people all over the world will soon be able to do.”

4. Copyright wars
The potential to copy products on demand will make it harder for manufacturers and designers to safeguard their intellectual property. Lawyers believe we will see a big rise in the number of legal disputes. In an academic paper on 3D printing, Simon Bradshaw of the University of London and two colleagues compare it with the dramatic impact which new technology had on the music industry. “3D printing technology may have similar implications for artistic copyright, design right, trade marks and patents, but in a rather more diverse legal framework,” they say.

5. A new role for China
A move to local production would have consequences for China, whose economy is heavily reliant on manufacturing. Richard A. D’Aveni points out that not all products lend themselves to 3D printing and that China will still have a huge domestic market. However he adds: “China will have to give up on being the mass-manufacturing powerhouse of the world. The strategy that has given it such political heft won’t serve it in the future.”

6. New horizons for other industries
Additive manufacturing could revolutionise production in some industries. In the healthcare sector, scientists are already using it to create new body parts. In 2012 an 83-year-old woman became the first recipient of a printed jawbone created by a Belgian company LayerWise. Ruben Wauthle of LayerWise said: “You can build parts that you can’t create using any other technique. For example you can print porous titanium structures which allow bone in-growth and allow a better fixation of the implant.”

3D printing could also revolutionise chemistry and pharmaceuticals. Researchers at Harvard University have created a miniature battery while Lee Cronin, a chemist from the University of Glasgow, claims to have prototyped a 3D printer capable of assembling chemical compounds and printing drugs.

7. New types of crime
Inevitably new technology will bring with it some risks. New South Wales police recently warned about the danger of guns that can be made on 3D printers. The same force identified a criminal gang who were using the technology to produce ATM skimmers – devices which fit around the card slot of cash machines and read data from customers’ cards. There is also speculation that it could be used to make military equipment, chemical weapons and illegal drugs.

However, while 3D printing offers both potential good and bad, the changes could take longer than expected, according to some experts. Vivek Wadhwa warns it may have less impact than predicted in the short term: “We won’t – for a long time – see the large-scale manufacturing revolution that Obama is hoping for. That revolution will, however, happen after we become bitterly disappointed.”

Last updated:
27 February 2019