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Mass Customization in Sight as Manufacturing Goes 3D-Digital

May 31, 2012

My first encounter with 3D printing was several years ago when a CEO friend and I met for lunch and he pulled out a working prototype of his latest hockey helmet, asking me what I thought of the design.  I asked, “are you in production already?  When can I get one”?  Bill’s response, “Heck no.  The helmet in your hand was printed.”


The dream of all New Market Entrepreneurs focused on selling ‘things’ (rather than bits and bytes) has been the notion of offering customized individual products just as the customer wants them.   This has happened at least once already.  Technology advances in ink jet printing facilitated a migration from paper to objects (like mugs and t-shirts to name just two) which ushered a custom, on-demand industry championed by well-know companies today like Zazzle and CafePress in the consumer space and VistaPrint in the B2B space.  Lots of value was created, money made and still being made.   And the dark force all makers and sellers of ‘things’ must fight every day had been virtually eradicated:  INVENTORY… which clears the path to making even more money!

A similar revolution is under foot that has LaunchPad’s attention: 3D-Printing.  Be sure to check the infographic at the bottom of this post for a great visual depiction of the 3D-Printing process and possibilities.

Also known as Additive Manufacturing, 3D-printers are able to layer a variety of plastics to fabricate most any object imaginable.  And their prices

are plummeting (We recently witnessed a feature rich 3D enter the market with at a $500 price point.)  Some are arguing that they will usher in a 3rd industrial revolution.  From a recent expose in the Economist (if you are interested in this topic, you really need to click over and check out the multi-part expose they do on the future of manufacturing.  It is very well done.):

THE first industrial revolution began in Britain in the late 18th century, with the mechanisation of the textile industry. Tasks previously done laboriously by hand in hundreds of weavers’ cottages were brought together in a single cotton mill, and the factory was born. The second industrial revolution came in the early 20th century, when Henry Ford mastered the moving assembly line and ushered in the age of mass production. The first two industrial revolutions made people richer and more urban. Now a third revolution is under way. Manufacturing is going digital.

The old way of making things involved taking lots of parts and screwing or welding them together. Now a product can be designed on a computer and “printed” on a 3D printer, which creates a solid object by building up successive layers of material. The digital design can be tweaked with a few mouseclicks. The 3D printer can run unattended, and can make many things which are too complex for a traditional factory to handle. In time, these amazing machines may be able to make almost anything, anywhere—from your garage to an African village.

The applications of 3D printing are especially mind-boggling. Already, hearing aids and high-tech parts of military jets are being printed in customised shapes. The geography of supply chains will change. An engineer working in the middle of a desert who finds he lacks a certain tool no longer has to have it delivered from the nearest city. He can simply download the design and print it. The days when projects ground to a halt for want of a piece of kit, or when customers complained that they could no longer find spare parts for things they had bought, will one day seem quaint.  -read more-

The 3D printing industry is morphing before our eyes… moving from applications that accelerate and make prototyping more affordable toward actually producing things.  Currently around 28% of the money spent on printing things is for final products, according to an Additive Manufacturing expert who also predicts that this will rise to just over 50% by 2016 and to more than 80% by 2020– But it will never reach 100%, he thinks, because the ability to make prototypes quickly and cheaply will remain an important part of the mix — quotes from this Economist piece.

The heart of the appeal of 3D printing lies in its attractive economics that will work as well for certain types of custom designed objects as the approach Zazzle and Cafe Press have taken with T’s and Coffee mugs… and made a killing.

As there are barely any economies of scale in additive manufacturing, the technology is ideally suited to low-volume production. It also allows the mass customisation of finished parts. Millions of dental crowns and shells for hearing aids are already being made individually with 3D printers.  Freed of the constraints of traditional factories, additive manufacturing allows designers to produce things that were previously considered far too complex to make economically. That could be for aesthetic reasons, but engineers are finding practical applications too.  -read more-

No surprise, the first “Zazzles for 3D Printing” have shown up on the scene.   Shapeways is just that beast.  More will follow.  Check Shapeways out.  It’s a trip, for sure.  People are uploading their 3D designs and selling interesting stuff Shapeways prints out only when you order.   This is just the beginning, but a fascinating example of what’s coming.

How long before we all have these gizmos in our homes, electing to print things we need rather than run to the store or wait for it to show up in the mail?   While microscopic, the chart at the left depicts an emergence of a home 3D printer market already.

LaunchPad is watching this space closely and trying to determine the right angle to participate.  We love business models offering ‘things’ that sidestep inventory!

We’d like to hear your thoughts?  Where is this all going?

6/2/12 Update-  Just discovered this infographic…   it describes the 3D Printing process and possibilities quite well.

What is 3D Printing?

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