Sep 21, 2012 1:20 PM GMT
By all evidence, 3-D printing has reached its inflection point, when it moves from the sophisticated early adopters to people who just want to print something cool. Soon, probably in the next few years, the market will be ready for a mainstream 3-D printer sold by the millions at Walmart and Costco. At that point, the incredible economies of scale that an HP or Epson can bring to bear will kick in. A 3-D printer will cost $99, and everyone will be able to buy one.
That doesn’t mean we’ll 3-D print everything. The big win of the digital-manufacturing age is that we can have our choice between mass production and customization. Just because you can make a million rubber duckies in your garage doesn’t mean you should: Made on a 3-D printer, the first ducky might run you just $20, but sadly so will the millionth—there is no economy of scale. If you injection-mold your ducks in a factory, though, the old fashioned way, the first may cost $10,000—for tooling the mold—but every one after that amortizes the initial outlay. By the time you’ve made a million, they cost just pennies apiece for the raw material. For small batches of a few hundred duckies, digital fabrication now wins. For big batches, the old analog way is still best.
But think about how many products actually make more sense in batches of hundreds, not millions. For this Long Tail of Things, the only option a few decades ago was handcrafting. Today digital fabricators can bring automated processes and near-perfect quality to the smallest batches.
Digital fabrication also takes the expensive parts of traditional manufacturing and makes them cheap. In mass production, the more complicated a product is and the more changes you make, the more it costs. But with digital fabrication, it’s the reverse: The traits that are expensive in traditional manufacturing become free. Consider:
Variety is free: It costs no more to make every product different than to make them all the same.
Complexity is free: A minutely detailed product, with many fiddly little components, can be 3-D printed as cheaply as a plain block of plastic.
Flexibility is free: Changing a product after production has started means just changing the instruction code.
When Star Trek captain Jean-Luc Picard wanted a hot beverage, he’d simply tell the Enterprise Replicator to make “Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” It’s no coincidence that MakerBot chose the same name. The tea itself is still a ways off, but the cup? You can make it today.