With the ever increasing sophistication of 3D Printing will it soon be manufacturing on an individual scale?
A 3D Printer is device capable of creating objects in 3 dimensions from a set of instructions such as a CAD drawing or code. While there is a burgeoning marketing in 3D printers for manufacturing plastic parts it is theoretical possible to 3D print anything given appropriate inputs, an understanding of the structure required and accurate instructions. Clearly this has wide-ranging implementations in manufacturing, medicine and science but also far reaching implications for economics, trade and sustainability.
Prior to the industrial revolution artisans and craftsman sourced raw materials and made goods and typically refining of those materials from the raw inputs was done close to the source because transporting bulk goods was not efficient. At the beginning of the industrial revolution factories that made goods needed to be close to the source materials and water to transport the goods. With the invention of machines came rail transportation in particular meaning factories and refineries no longer needed to located at the source. The goods could be transported to larger centers where larger factories could be built. This use of machines to transport and process materials went hand in hand and opened up both manufacturing and trade efficiency.
The reduction of trade, communication and transportation barriers over the late part of the 20th century and early 21st century has created a further revolution. Rather than bringing raw materials to each area or country manufacturing where goods are manufactured based on development of technology it is far more efficient to ship the intellectual property to places where it is far less expensive to build factories and employ labour and then ship the goods globally.
This has vastly reduced the cost of goods but there is still one further hurdle - shipping bulk goods globally is slow process. We haven't yet developed a way to efficiently lift goods into the air to transport them long distances so sea and land-based shipping remains the most cost effective distribution method. This results in considerable lag and infrastructure between the assembly of goods and reaching the consumer.
So what if we could simply ship the intellectual property required to build something straight to the consumer and then they could manufacture it directly with a 3D printer on a small scale. The cost of shipping a file definition is both faster and much more efficient. This is effectively the real benefit of 3D printing - manufacturing anything instantly at its final destination. Of course the consumer would need access to raw materials so this would be most efficient where the manufactured good is composed of few elemental components.
Home manufacturing plastic
items is the most likely place to start as plastic based goods tend to be composed of one type of material. Therefore with one simple raw material thousands of different items can be built as required. This could be anything from furniture to household items to replacement parts for more complex goods. Before long rather visiting Ikea you will simply download the furniture files feed them to your 3D printer and assemble it yourself from the relative comfort of your soon to be printed plastic couch.
Maybe you're not ready for such utilitarian commodities in your home just yet but it is not too far in the future before 3D printers will be creating everything from plastic items to structures to food. Believe it or not printing food is not far from reality if you consider that the most common 3D printer plastic these days is composed of organic polymers derived from sugar and starch. Before this century is over you will be able to buy food as plastic rods and sachets of concentrated flavours; load them into your 3D Printer and have yourself a hot roast dinner in accurate detail printed at the touch of a button. The advantages are huge, think no wastage, no spoilage, reduced storage, eat whatever you what whenever you want.
Building a house with a 3D printer might sound far-fetched but it is already happening. If you can simply print items to whatever shape is required on-site from a plan it reduces the person-hours and shipping costs. It doesn't necessarily have to be restricted to organic derived materials either, 3D printing concrete machines are already reaching production stage and machines that print composite materials like glass, rubber and wood are starting to filter down from the industrial level.
While it is unlikely that this might be creative enough to appeal to your average home builder it has huge potential for living in remote areas, shelter after natural disasters, space exploration, third world countries, temporary relocation accommodation and war zones.
One of the biggest opportunities for future distributed manufacturing with 3D Printers is personalisation. Why buy the same design in the shop in a small range of colours when you can download the design and print in any colour you have. This opens up whole new markets for artisans and designers, no longer do they need to go through lengthy manufacturing process they can simply design and ship the file allowing the consumer to manufacture the item where and when it is needed with their own 3D printer visit their local store and pickup pre-ordered goods the day before which will no longer need to hold stock just manufacture on demand.
While some may argue 3D printing has not lived up to the hype as yet we are only seeing the race for the consumer hobby market at present the high-quality high-performance technology is only beginning to filter down to the consumer price range. With not only the advances in printing technology but also plastic filament development in the plastic areas and all sort of 3D printers popping up for other types on construction the build on-demand distributed manufacturing model may soon be mainstream and the reality of a 3D printer
sitting alongside your regular printer may become more common that not.