It might be fun to 3D-print an exact, miniaturized replica of Jon Snow’s direwolf, but it’s considerably less entertaining to consider the long-term impact of the machine that produced it.
Stay with me; for less than $1000, consumers can buy a 3D printer that can produce at home the goods they would normally purchase at a supply store. As the technology becomes less expensive and higher-quality, more consumers are likely to invest in it and service their own product needs, rather than heading to a local shop. However, garden-variety town stores aren’t the only vendors who face a looming threat to their businesses.
Let’s embark on a path that the average layperson avoids at all costs: considering big business. International producers are able to churn out the low-cost gadgets and goods that the average Walmart-goer takes for granted by outsourcing the manufacturing process to countries known for offering cheap labor. However, that production model is contingent on the assumption that domestic producers aren’t able to produce quality goods at similarly low prices – an assumption that 3D printing cleanly wipes away.
Once these printers become mainstream tools for production, smaller firms and even households will be able to print the components and final products that had historically been made in large, assembly-driven factories. Large firms that previously relied on low-cost manufacturers to produce component parts will soon find themselves in the awkward position of no longer having a business edge over companies manufacturing goods domestically.
Moreover, 3D printing offers consumers greater opportunities for customization. Where it might have once cost thousands of dollars to build a prototype through traditional manufacturing methods, printers can cheaply and quickly produce easily customizable products. This slashes costs for those in research and development, and paves the way for greater innovation in product creation.
Judging from research published in the Journal of International Business Studies in 2016, the industries most acutely at risk are those that produce jewelry, sporting goods, medical and musical instruments, and toys. Others that rely on natural materials such as oil and wood face minimal risk, since 3D printing operates on a system which works best with plastics and other fiber-friendly materials.
So, is the onset of 3D printing a positive event? For those developing medical technology or experimenting with the latest designs in sports technology – yes. For large manufacturing companies reliant on labor-driven assembly, perhaps less so. However, there is no doubt that the shift to 3D-printing is approaching, if not already occurring: according to a PwC study conducted in 2014, 11% of surveyed companies reported that they relied on 3D-printed parts; 20% is typically when a technology is considered “mainstream.”
Many in tech and business are calling the trend towards 3D printing the “third industrial revolution,” and the name appears to suit. Whether manufacturing companies want it or not, change is coming – and they need to be prepared to adapt when it does.