3D printing's disruption potential

3D printing may be in its infancy, but underestimating this technology could be the undoing of retailers and manufacturers.

3D printing: it’s a consumer's dream, a retailer’s nightmare and a manufacturing killer all rolled into one. Like it or not this tech product is already on the market and it’s finally set to revolutionise the world.

The technology for 3D printing has been around for almost 20 years, but it has now been refined to a point where it's affordable for consumers to make full use of it. For $999, you can purchase a machine that can create any kind of small plastic tool or toy for a fraction of its retail value.

But is this enough to ruin a business, let alone an industry? It may not look like much of a threat but try telling that an outfit like Games Workshop, a multi-million dollar UK company that creates and sells intricate table-top battle figurines for a hefty profit.

One figurine can cost anywhere between $20 to $100 and in order to play the game properly, you need an army of them. With a dedicated fanbase across the globe Games Workshop took the 3D printing threat seriously enough to file multiple cease-and-desist notices.

The notices were aimed at a website called Thingiverse which published the designs for some of their models. Thingiverse subsequently bowed to the legal pressure and removed the plans from its site. 

Game Workshop’s action seems fair enough, as having the schematics openly available for all to replicate with their 3D printers would have severely compromised the company’s business model. 

For the moment, 3D printing hasn't advanced enough to set alarm bells ringing for most companies, but we are just witnessing the beginning of the revolution.

Consumer-targeted 3D printing technology isn’t going to stop at just replicating plastic models. Soon the technology will allow the combining of materials to replicate more intricate designs. While the toy and accessory related industries may be first in the firing line, more are sure to follow.

Australian consumers are already getting a taste of the 3D printing trend. Director of 3D Printing Systems Australia, Bruce Jackson says that while sales are still dominated by manufacturers and educational institutions around 20 per cent of his sales are to hobbyists looking to experiment.

According to Jackson, creating sculptures or knick-knacks is just one potential use of the printer. Given the right schematics, it can also create spare parts for home appliances given the plastic it produces is about as sturdy as what we see on most appliances anyway.

He call it “the gift that keeps on giving”. But the only thing it gives law firm HopgoodGanim’s senior associate Hayden Delany is a legal headache.

“The way in which these devices are getting out into consumers’ hands is going to cause greater potential for business disruption,” Delany says.

“Whenever you get business disruption, you get interested industries coming out and saying ‘this new technology is going to destroy the way we do businesses and as a result will try and lobby for changes to the law.”

Delany predicts that the resultant conflict could change intellectual property law, copyright law or could even see 3D printers chipped with systems that restrict designs that aren’t first approved by a company.

But if the conflict between the internet and the music industry has shown us anything, it's that no matter how many gates you lock content behind, tech savvy consumers will always find a way to jump the fence.

If the technology is prolific then consumers will always find a way to exploit it to its fullest.

One point that Delany and Jackson agree on is that 3D printing is an unstoppable technology trend, and someday everyone will own a 3D printer. While that’s a boon for consumers, it could potentially be the bane for everyone else.

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