I’m sure by now everyone has heard all of the controversy surrounding the 3D printer. If you haven’t, click the link. In summary, you can now print out a functional gun within the confines of your own home within minutes, and there’s no way to trace it. Despite the poor PR of the technology, we’re already doing amazing things, but all the media can talk about are the guns.
Since the gun debate is at the forefront of this new technology’s growing pains, let’s quickly think of some solutions to this issue. Now, the ethics surrounding this technology is something that investors funding these startups will seriously need to consider if they want to put their money to work in the technology right now. It’s unfortunate that such an innovative technology has been put to use in a less than ideal way via printing guns (if America gets invaded by Zimbabwe, then I’m all for printing guns!) But right now I feel the 3D printing industry is at a crossroads, before the snake eats its own tail, so to speak.
– One route could be a new standard in the industry that mandates all printers record their printed items and that data is shared/monitored (Feel free to invent this monitoring technology and advocate for its standardization. Then pay me royalties when you’re done.) This will create the “safety blanket” industry pundits, investors, and government officials would like to see for such an open-ended new technology.
– Another route could be government intervention of some sort, where 3D printer manufacturers are only licensed to build printers with certain capabilities. But, we all know how well the government runs its operations.
Either way, I feel the industry needs to put its foot down, separate the bad guys from the good, just so one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole bunch. Aside from the gun issues, the 3D printer is allowing us to do things we’ve never been able to do before, in medicine and in manufacturing.
Let’s take a look at what’s happening in medicine. Recently, someone created printing material made out of stem cells, and what they created (I mean printed), was a human ear. The process was eerily simple. A doctor took a picture of a child’s ear, uploaded it to the 3D printer, and printed out an ear all within 15 minutes. Now the ear had to be left for the stem cells to gestate and grow into skin cells. In fact, ,there is a company called Organovo that’s leading the “bioprinting” revolution, primarily specializing in customized prosthetics. Currently, many firms and entrepreneurs are racing to create life-like prosthetics that you can feel and maneuver with brain waves, just like a normal body part. (insert some off-color joke about mass printing black penises here).
I personally think that medicine will reap some of the greatest benefits at the early stages of this technology. Manufacturing on the other hand, I believe won’t be adversely affected for some time, call it 15 years. Until these machines are able to produce at the speed and efficiency of multi-million dollar machines/plants, they won’t have much efficacy. But that one day will come. For now, the only place manufacturers will feel an impact is any prototype manufacturing. With 3D printing, entrepreneurs will be able to quickly have a physical prototype of their product, at a fraction of the cost and time, cutting traditional manufacturers out of the picture. So, yes, 3D printing is currently a “bad fit” for some manufacturers — but that doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad fit for everyone. One of the technology’s more promising traits is its ability to offer people customized versions of mass manufactured products like phone cases and cups. 3D printers free manufacturers from the demands of one-size-fits-all manufacturing, which is why it’s got so many fashion and toy companies interested.
If you want to put your money to work in what could possibly the technology that leads to the next Industrial Revolution, DDD, SSYS, and XONE are opportunities. These three companies recognize the low barriers to entry into the industry, that’s why 3D printer manufacturers have been getting bought up at a record clip by these three.
Just like any new technology or disruption to industry, there will be hurdles to jump before the innovation really hits its stride, finds its market, and into mainstream adoption. This industrial revolution 3D printing I mention is going to start will take some time, mainly to iron out the wrinkles. Even if you think 3D printing’s prospects are bleak, who thought AirBnB (the whole sharing economy) would have been as widely accepted. Or Uber, Lyft, etc, etc. Each of these three successful ideas (after being around for 3-5 years) are still ironing out the wrinkles. AirBnB is running into legal trouble with many states now as legislation prohibits paid stays without the original paying tenant under 30 days. Uber and others ride-sharing companies are hitting legal bumps as well.
My point with this is although 3D printing might seem “doomed”, innovation presents new challenges around the way we think and challenges how our economy is governed via the rules we have in place currently. With each of these concepts: 3D printing, room sharing, and ride-sharing, these small legal hurdles will be jumped as governing bodies will see the benefit to the consumer (hopefully). Unless someone with deep pockets in a particular jurisdiction is will to lobby for no change, then we might some less than stellar adoption of these innovations.
P.S. Microsoft just announced that Windows 8.1 will have software to enable consumers to more easily create and print 3D objects. They definitely want to take out the technical skills and advanced knowledge of CAD to create these objects. Breaking down the barriers to allow people to focus on being creative, instead of technical.