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

Is 3D printing overhyped? Maybe. But 3D printing still has the potential to change enterprises, business and the way we think about everything.

3D printer

At the MakerBot headquarters, a 21st-floor Brooklyn, N.Y., office space with a bird's-eye view of lower Manhattan, journalists were assembled Sept. 20 for a look at the company's newest device, the MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner.

The scanner eliminates the need for a user to laboriously create a digital model with which to duplicate something. Taking up roughly the counter space of a toaster, the Digitizer uses two lasers to scan an object and create a watertight digital model in less than 12 minutes. From there, a user can hit "print" or use the model as a starting point.

Bre Pettis, MakerBot's exuberant and camera-friendly CEO, likes to say that the Digitizer "jump-starts the creative process." Soon enough, he expects people—toy designers, hobbyists, architects, jet-engine builders—to begin measuring the time saved between idea and finished product.

Four years ago, Pettis helped launch Thingiverse, a site where MakerBot users can share inventions and download digital models. ("There were sites for downloading books and music and videos, but what about things?" said Pettis.) Since then, he's created about 100 models. Over the last two weeks, however, with a Digitizer Desktop 3D Scanner on his desk, he'd already created more than 50.

"This is going to change the pace of innovation, because people can iterate faster, they can make mistakes faster, they can throw a version in the trash and move on to the next one," said Pettis. "It really speeds up the process of getting something going."

As Pettis spoke, a MakerBot Replicator 2 was busy in the background, printing a replica of the plastic red garden gnome standing on the Digitizer's "turntable."

The turntable has an 8-inch diameter—basically, because if an object can fit on the turntable, it's small enough to be made in a Replicator.

Pettis, added that MakerBot's goal for the Digitizer was that when someone put something on its turntable, scanning it would be "as easy as playing a record."

The gnome—like the event party favor of a replica of the scanner scanning the gnome, all of it small enough to fit inside a plastic gumball—is the epitome of the kind of kitsch and plastic junk some people dread will result from giving consumers the power to manufacture objects, ad nauseam.

(Likewise, the fast-growing list of materials that 3D printers can now work with means that scientists are experimenting with printed transplantable kidneys, but silly conceits like printing a dinner party, from the entree to the napkin rings, now also make headlines.)

Still, MakerBot, which this summer was acquired by industrial 3D-printer maker Stratysys, is well aware of the serious, business-changing benefits its products can offer to a number of vertical markets.

NASA, GE and Lockheed Martin are all clients. And in addition to helping build aircrafts and space telescopes, MakerBot's work was strutted down a runway in early September as part of New York's Fashion Week.