Print to order: How will 3D printing redefine manufacturing?

There are two ways of thinking on how 3D printing will shake up product production: it could be a great leap forward for customisation, or revive bespoke production.

Is there anything that 3D printing can’t do? If all the coverage on the topic is to believed, the rise of 3D printing will be more influential than the internet.

Not only will this technology turn manufacturing on its head, but it will also save lives and even solve world hunger... possibly with pizza.

But before it does all that, the humble 3D printer will likely propel another idea - a radical rethink of how we manufacture and design consumer goods.

Gartner hinted at this concept in its recent report on the 3D printing trend. The analyst firm predicted that 3D printing would drive down the cost of production to a point where it would actually be profitable for firms to produce individually tailored goods on a mass production scale.

We’re already seeing this trend emerge with T-shirts and iPad covers, but advances with 3D printing are pitched to expand it to more product lines, and even make it a norm for consumer goods over the next couple of decades.

In theory, this idea will more or less take the world back to an era before mass manufacturing, where goods were individually crafted to order based on the needs of consumers. Or so says Martin Hosking, the founder of online marketplace RedBubble founder.

“Personalisation was very possible, up until the mass production era of industrialisation," Hosking explains.

“What is happening with new technology, is that personalised and customised stuff can compete on cost with the mass produced stuff. It's sometimes still a little more expensive, but the cost is continuing to come down,” he says.

There are two veins of thinking on how this trend will pan out.

Rethinking customisiation

The first involves the advancement of a trend that we’re already seeing: customisation.

Many companies, like RedBubble, already trade off this idea.  With RedBubble, it provides a template for a shirt or iPad cover and asks its users to pick a design and colour before ordering.

3D printing has the potential to economically expand RedBubble’s product range but - as with most retailers -  it may also pose a threat to its business. After all, why order something off a website when you can print it from the comfort of your own home?

But Hosking isn’t worried. Given the trend he’s seen with his business, he’s actually banking on the laziness of everyday consumers to mean most will opt to customise rather than create.

“Most people are going to [want to] choose from a set of fonts or designs, which have already been set-up for them. Then they customise it for their own interests,” Hoskin explains.

“So, I don't see that as cutting out the artist and designers from the marketplace.

“I see it as actually enhancing their role and while that is the case, we will continue to play important role, because we are the middle person between the artist and designer.”

And in response to the idea creating a pure built-to-order 3D printing business Hosking said: “that's not where we'll be playing”.

Bespoke manufacturing

This second view really harks back to the days of cottage industries. In this scenario, 3D printing will usher in the mass production of diverse and unique consumer goods, where each items is built to order by the supplier.

As technology improves, the amount of products that will be able to be produced this way will increase. We may start off with plastic 3D printed figurines, but we could end up with a situation where whole smartphones or devices are custom built for every user.

And if you look at the recent phone PhoneBloks example (see the video below) we may be getting there sooner than you think. This build-your-own-smartphone idea has gained significant momentum in the past year. In fact, Google's smartphone division Motorola recently partnered with PhoneBloks to help them produce the first personalised smartphone. 

According to Gartner’s study there will be a market for this kind of bespoke printing service. This gap will likely be filled by smaller firms that will arrive in the market when refinement and innovation inevitably drives down the cost of 3D printing.

They may look something like Zebra Atoms - a fake 3D printing company set up to prove a point during this year’s CommsDay summit.

Juniper Network’s chief architect, Richard Bayliss set up a fully capable 3D printing business in less than 15 days to demonstrate the potential combining new technologies with broadband to create new business opportunities.

For Bayliss, this is the future of consumer goods because “it's an example of creating scarcity, and scarcity adds value”.

Where manufacturing meets consumer psychology

Truth be told, this shift in manufacturing isn’t a polarised scenario. Companies around the world are likely to deploy both improved customisation and personalisation strategies as technology improves.

Behind the manufacturing debate lies another discussion as to what consumers really want.

There’s no doubt that we want unique products tailored to our every need. But the success of brands and marketing also indicates that we may also (deep down) actually like uniformity and the ability to craft our identity with particular products. Just look at the popularity of the iPhone.

It will be interesting to see how it all pans out, and we won’t have to wait long either. Gartner says that the 3D printing trend has hit its “inflection point” and the technology’s influence will expand exponentially from here on out.

It may save lives, and solve world hunger, but will it really turn consumer goods on their head? That remains to be seen.

Harrison Polites is the deputy editor of Technology Spectator. You can follow @HarrisonPolites on Twitter.