The Coming 3rd Industrial Revolution?

Disruptive technologies seems to be firmly back on the agenda, with electric cars, driverless cars, cloud computing, new materials compounds, wearable computing, 3D printing and so on, figuring prominently in press.  Of these, one of the most interesting has surely to be 3D printing. 

Whilst the technology has been around for some time (in fact the first technology was invented by Charles Hull in 1984!), (click here to read the history of 3D printing ),  it’s only just now that a combination of factors is making 3D printing a reality, including printer costs approaching mass market pricing.  If the first Industrial Revolution was all about factories and mass manufacturing, and the 2nd revolution was about digitisation and electronics, could the 3rd industrial revolution could be brought about by the relatively humble 3D printer? 

How can a printer change manufacturing, economies, work and trade? 

Whilst inevitably the main focus on 3D printers is around the technology, like all disruptive technologies, the social, economic and even political consequences could to be huge, and it’s this dimension which is the most inteeresring.   Firstly, it completely changes the paradigm of mass manufacturing and the notion of making large numbers of identical products as cheaply as possible – in fact the opposite will occur - customers can configure and have made economically each their own, unique design.  Mass manufacturing will still exist, but alongside a whole new raft of niche, boutique, specialist, bespoke manufacturers and providers.  Products won’t be to standard specification, but made to measure; lead-times won’t be the time it takes to manufacture and ship in a container from China, but within hours, shipped from a local source.  Imagine the consequences for China and the cheap manufacturing model.  Imagine the possibilities for reviving local manufacturing reshoring in the UK, US and Europe.

Who are the new players?

As with many disruptive technologies, traditional manufacturers and printer manufacturers will struggle to make the leap into the new technology, and a raft of new ones will take over, such as the Roland (of musical instruments fame) who has introduced one of the first desktop 3D printers for hobbyists, the iModela iM-01,  at $1000 (watch it here), or Makerbot at $2800 and so on.  Intermediaries, such as import and export agencies, retailers, and so on risk to get disinter mediated (nice language for ‘terminated’). 

It’s significant that Motley Fool are highlighting 3 companies to watch in this area:   3D Systems, a US-based company with explosive growth (sales of $354m in 2012, of which printers account for  $127m – up from $67m in 2011),  Stratasys (US-based company specialising in 3D printers, with $156m sales in 2011, up 32% from $118m in 2010), and Renishaw,  a UK- based company with broader portfolio (measurement, precision machinery, motion control, etc) with £174m sales in 2012.  For the moment, sales of 3D printers from these companies are relatively small and arguably don’t pose an immediate threat to established 1D printer companies like HP, Lexmark  and so on.  HP for example, have their own version, the Inkjet 3D printer, but  there is only one model.  More significantly, HP are in turnaround mode rather than futures, and it’s significant that there is no mention of 3D printing in their 2012 10-K Annual Report , and if you look at the organisation of the Printing Division (page13 of the Annual Report) it has no apparent focus or capacity to pursue this new area, and it's not clear that they will be able to respond. So it’s quite likely that traditional printers will wake up one day and find that the market has moved and on their lunch just been eaten. 

Who is using 3D printers and what are the applications?

As mentioned, 3D printers have the capacity to ultimately replace mass manufacturing.  Items manufactured en masse in low wage ecnomies could be re-shored to Europe and the USA, and made in much quicker time, to your design and spec.   Here are some real exemples: 

In medicine, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in NC, USA have produced personalised prosthetic limbs using 3D printing, ("We wanted to design and produce something unique and far more personal—to bring greater humanity to people who've experienced a traumatic or congenital limb loss..... We're turning something ordinary and dehumanizing into something cool and amazing"), and even used living cells as the ‘ink’ in a 3D printer to create a transplantable kidney, known as “bioprinting" - the production of human organs for transplant.  The world’s first commercial 3D bioprinter was developed in 2009, by Organovo..  These are clearly extremely exciting and liberating applications which could transform our world. 

In the UK, a company called Makielab makes digital toys and dolls using 3D printing, with the strapline that “Our digital toys can be turned into playable-with physical toys, within a matter of days”.  As a sign of the future arriving today, Makielab have just launched an app for iPhone (Makies Doll Factory) “where customers can design, customise and order one-of-a-kind 3D printed dolls...which means  that  we can model toys then manufacture toys, overnight”.  Dolls made this way come at what is currently a premium price (£59.99), but that doesn’t seems so expensive for something which is fully customised for you and wholly unique.  Have a look at their website if you want to understand how 3D printing will change manufacturing and supply, and people’s buying habits.

Whilst the current applications are inevtiabley somewhat nascent and few and far, applications and sales are growing.    Eric Schmidt of Google singles 3D printing out as a coming disruptive technology, making the point in a recent interview for McKinsey (watch the video here) that many new materials never imagined before are also arriving on the scene, and it’s this combination - 3D printing + completely new ultra light, ultra powerful materials and compounds that will open up huge new industries. 

Opportunities and threats

3D printing could change the economic situation dramatically.  Economies of scale dramatically change, as do do entry barriers to manufacturing which tumble, and so allowing perhaps thousands of new entrants – manufacturers, designers, value added providers, and so on who will start to appear.  IP, anti-trust and patent law will be effected.  Choice will become literally endless or infinite.  Markets will become, as Peppers and Rogers predicted 20 years ago, ‘Markets of one’, or 1:1 Marketing. - individual, customised, tailored to delivering your needs, not the mass.  The combination of 3D printing and new materials (read the book ‘Materials Matters’ if you want to know more) will enable shapes and designs not previously possible. 

On the darker side, like all disruptive technologies, 3D printing will bring major and profound challenges.  Recently there was the video of the world’s first fully functioning gun made with a 3D printer,, which obviously has massive implications for terrorism, access by kids, for governments and so on.  If mass manufacturing declines, so do large factories and the numbers of people working in them, so there will be massive changes in the numbers of workers, where they are needed, and the skills they need to have. 

As when all new technologies arrive, those who survive will be those who embrace and adapt it.  3D printing has the opportunity to impact and change manufacturing, the current economic, manufacturing and trade paradigm and balance, and even society for the better.     


History of 3D printing:
iModela on You Tube:
Eric Schmidt short interview on disruptive technologies
Book:  ‘Materials Matters – New materials in design’ by Philip Howes and Zoe Laughlin:
Peppers and Rogers 1:1 Marketing:

Posted on: Tuesday, May 21, 2013