Is 3D printing a truly disruptive technology or simply a cool one? There’s no doubt that it’s cool. I have my doubts about whether it lives up to its hype as the next disruptor. I have been fascinated by 3D printing in the relatively short time that it has been around. I have written about it and there are already conferences and blogs related to it. There have already been controversies – the emergence of the first 3D printed handgun.
There is something very sci-fi about “printing” an actual, tactile object from a blue print. I think it holds enormous potential for creating one of a kind items, things like medical devices. 3D printing has the extraordinary capacity to create custom products of any size. That really could be disruptive in a field like medicine. I’m thinking about the capacity to produce stents and other devices that could be customized to the needs of patients on an individual basis. To me, disruption raises the prospect of changes all facets of a society. In that regard, I contend that 3D printing falls short, at least at present.
What’s the potential in other areas for 3D printing? It is enormously helpful in producing models or prototypes. In the past, these have cost thousands of dollars and days to produce. The cost of producing prototypes is much lower and can be done much more quickly on a 3D printer. When it comes to producing at volume, however, the benefits fade – quickly. There are no economies of scale realized when producing on a 3D printer. Each item is produced from scratch and each item costs exactly the same thing to produce. Contrast that with the cost of creating a mold. The initial mold can cost thousands, but once it’s cast, the cost of producing each item is marginal – it can be pennies on the dollar.
Again, that’s not to detract from the “cool” factor of 3D printing. There is, for example, LA-based Sugar Lab, a small studio that s produces elaborate 3D printed sugar concoctions. The story goes that the husband-wife team behind Sugar Lab didn’t have an oven to make a birthday cake for a friend so they decided to 3D print one. A cupcake topper, the friends name 3D printed with a cursive flourish in sugar, was the result. (I guess they don’t regular bakeries where you can buy cakes in LA ;-). That’s a cool story, and there are cool design elements to 3D printing. There are even stories about 3D printing a house. I just don’t see how it’s going to change how we communicate, consume or view the world anytime soon. I hope to be proven wrong eventually, but for now I’ll continue to look at it as a cool gadget.