3D printing vs Mass production Part I: The Power of Unique

Many people have been talking lately of 3D printing versus Mass Production. The implication is that localized individualized production will supplant the current manufacturing paradigm with a third industrial revolution. We will all become manufacturers and make exactly what we want using 3D printing. Although I applaud such optimism and would postulate that 3D printing will bring about a third industrial revolution I don”t think it is “going to go down” in that way. Instead, I think 3D printing will develop in a more concentrated manner and focus on Bleeding edge consumers and 1% of all goods.  3D printing will not be used by “everyone to make anything” but rather be used by some to make the things they care about most. Furthermore, I believe that through this path 3D printing will come to slow down mass production and ameliorate the heavy burden that mass manufacturing is exacting on our planet. This is the first part of 5 blog posts detailing how I believe this process will unfold.

I. The power of unique

To me the great potential of 3D printing is in its ability to create unique things that are exactly suited to their purpose. A titanium hip replacement made to your exact dimensions, a memento that exactly encapsulates a moment, a gift that sums up your love for someone, a better fitting golf glove.  All things made specifically to give the highest utility for you at that moment. You designed it, you styled it, you described it and you made it. Products created in this fashion will be immensely valuable to their creators and to others as well. By enabling the manufacturing of ideas, the 3D printing industry could anticipate on and respond to demand for any type of specific goods. I don”t believe that 3D printing will make manufacturing universal just as even something as basic as literacy is not universal even now. I also don”t think we”ll take the time to design and 3D print things we don”t care about. I do however anticipate that those most ambitious for the improvement of things will migrate to 3D printing.

Mary, who is most passionate about interior design will make her own lamp, her own expression of what she wants and needs. So when others turn to Mary on advice on how to procure the missing puzzle piece for their interiors, Mary will answer, “oh, then darlings, why don”t you just 3D print it?”

Likewise when uncle Bob approaches hip audiophile cousin Tommy to ask him which headphones to buy, Tommy will tell him that he must 3D print them in order to get the perfect headphone fit. Across the spectrum, the consumer experts in each field: fashion, consumer electronics, interior design, jewelry, automotive etc. all will migrate towards 3D printing. Because eventually the experts will want to assert their expertise by creating a bowl that”s better than all those boring bowls that you can already buy; or a lamp that is prettier than all those boring Ikea lamps. Precisely because these experts that surround us seek expertise and perfection they will turn to perfecting their own experience first and foremost. You know that neighbor with the gold speaker cables? That is the kind of person I”m talking about. Once these people have migrated to 3D printing they will create a market for FabLabs, 3D printing services, home and office 3D printers, 3D modeling tools etc. This natural market will continue to propagate. Eventually the most informed and wealthy consumers will migrate to this market ensuring a momentous boost to the 3D printed economy and perhaps even self reliance. The people turning to 3D printing initially will be the “lighthouse”, avant garde, early adaptors/adopters; this thin sliver of the population that is always seeking better things. The people that have paid $1000 for DVD players and a $1000 for BluRay players when both came out. Lets call them the Bleeding edge consumers, always on the fore front of new trends. Perhaps they”re only a small percentage of the population and perhaps they would only consider using 3D printing for that one specific use case. Because of this let”s conservatively estimate that people will turn to 3D printing for only 1% of products that are created.

Meanwhile Happy Meal Toys and cheap LCD TVs will still be made. Hermes bags will continue to be eye popping, in price at least. The storied, complex and cheap will survive. I will continue to buy bigger televisions and pay attention only to how much I pay per inch. Because this is the trap that mass production has set for itself. It has both over delivered and failed to deliver on several key points.  These points are Manufacturing Complexity, Marketing Promise, the Environment & Wish Fulfillment. The other blog posts in this series are: Manufacturing Complexity and Marketing Promise, Everything you own Sucks,  More Beautiful Landfill and Wish Fulfillment.

Image Puuikibeach, Creative Commons Attribution.