3D Printing Is Going to Change Business, Society and the World

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2013-09-27 Print this article Print
3D printer

Go Low End or High End?

As capabilities of 3D printers become better known, and their presence becomes more commonplace, a cultural—even intellectual—shift will inevitably take place. People are going to think differently about stuff.

They're going to think a little more about how stuff is made and what it's made of. They're going to look at a thing and think, Could I do a better job? When they need something, they're going to consider whether to buy or if, maybe, they could design a better one, or find a better digital model online. In short, whether they're after a clever coat hook, a cute princess tiara or a stronger flush mechanism in their toilet tank, they're going to problem-solve differently.

"I have three young boys, and I have to say, it does fundamentally change the way they think about things they want and can create," said Microsoft's Boettcher. "For them to think up a toy that's half tank and half squirrel and then act on it—they say, 'Wow, I can make something that I have in my mind'—it's pretty inspiring."

"Now, I literally rethink everything in my life," Elisa Richardson, the PR and communications manager at Shapeways, told eWEEK. "I see something and think, 'That's really expensive. I could make it cheaper and better.'"

Shapeways is a 3D printing company in Long Island City, N.Y., with an industrial printer that it makes accessible to customers of all types. Anyone can design something, send the file to Shapeways and have it 3D-printed.

Visiting the Shapeways homepage is like visiting Etsy. Shapeways hosts "shops"—it now has more than 11,000 shop owners who show off their wares, from jewelry to robotics to furniture to drones. When someone orders something, Shapeways prints it.

"We provide shipping and production, so the shop owners have no inventory and no stock. They're able to just focus on designing," said Richardson.

Shapeways has printed more than 1 million objects to date and a customer base of 350,000, and its factory in Long Island City produces more than 60,000 objects per month. It ships around the world and in materials from plastic to gold-plated to premium silver and ceramics.

What will the next five years bring?

"As more people read about 3D printing and realize how non-frightening it is, we're going to see the uptick become massive," said Richardson.

Certainly, there's an enterprise trend toward embracing desktop 3D printers, and some believe 3D printers will eventually become as commonplace in homes and classrooms as 2D printers are. But users still may be split between the two models.

The tinkerers and experimenters may go for the quick reward of the desktop model, while those wanting more premium products may turn to Shapeways or similar offerings. It's easy to imagine a company like Amazon taking on the model—printing and shipping items designed by retailers as well as by small design shops or the customers themselves.

Radiant's Patterson, when asked what he's been printing on his Lionhead Bunny, said, "Bolts. Custom bolts. I've really been trying to print objects that are really usable by people. My niece, though," he added, "always wants to make things that will ultimately wind up as paperweights."

Follow Michelle Maisto on Twitter.


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