Monday, October 15, 2012

The Printernet of Things. For 3D printing of consumer electronics, how soon is now?

Download, print and wear. Are we almost there? Kind of.

Let's call this process "The Printernet of Things."


For those not familiar with 3D printing, picture something along the lines of Star Trek's replicator, then tone your expectations back a couple of centuries. There is a great deal of 3D print chatter around these days, and that means VC interest and funding. And that means hype and lots of exaggerated expectations.

Professional-quality 3D printers costing tens of thousands of dollars have been around for the past decade or so supporting rapid prototyping for manufacturers of all types. Through the use of 3D modeling software and 3D scanning, designers can hold a physical prototype --sometimes with functional moving parts-- in hand within hours at best or often after a long weekend. This is a real time saver for go/no-go decisions and thus can cut time to market significantly. And as we see so often, technology trickle down results in a nice long-term dividend for consumers.

So now the market for 3D printers is expanding from professional-quality, closet-sized devices to low-cost, desktop "thing" printers costing as little as a few hundred dollars for lower-quality hobby-level units.

There are some bold predictions that 3D printing be domesticated sooner than we realize and alter the global economy. After all, ubiquitous personal fabrication could eliminate the need for Christmas shopping. Suddenly you don't buy a box of Lego building blocks, you download them and print them out for little Betty or Johnny.

But like most earth-shattering technology changes, the hype comes long before consumers are ready or interested in the goods. And when the technology reaches that level of maturity, the changes are often unexpected. If we look at the parallels in the market for laser printers, even after hardware prices fell to a few hundred dollars and consumers snapped them up, printing books and newspapers at home never became fiscally prudent. The economies of mass production aren't so easily beat.

Nonetheless, it's vital for CE companies to be mentally prepared for all coming disruptions. The printing of complex consumer electronics --a large-screen LED television for example-- is a very, very long way off. But if you're a manufacturer which depends on the market for smartphone accessories such as cases and stands, you should certainly take note.

And here's a start for you. Need a pair of fashionable headphones? Then check out this project by Mr. John Mabry on "thingiverse," a website that supports the sharing of pre-physical things for 3D printing. Download, print, and snap together a working pair of headphones. (Or most of it at least.)

3D printing is certainly a top technology trend for the coming decade(s). Company trend spotters and futurists should certainly create internal awareness of this one. It could take customization to the extreme. Madonna had it right: the universe might be going digital, but we still live in a material world.

3D printing is making noise now.
Instructions to download and print out a pair of headphones:

FORM 1, a $2300 3D printer by startup Formlabs:

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