BDI Director and MD of Lucid Innovation, Alistair Williamson, believes that the emergence of 3D printers – technology which produces three-dimensional parts from digital data – offers a significant opportunity to change the way many organisations do business.
Entrepreneurial organisations face unprecedented challenges right now. Unprecedented competition, increasing consumer expectations, rising costs in Far East manufacturing economies and the crippling shortage of credit for innovative businesses to finance development are to name but a few. “Necessity is the mother of invention” goes the old saying, and historically, disruptive technologies have turned into real business opportunities in tough economic times.
3D print could draw parallels with the shift to digital photography in the imaging industry, with implications that marketers, entrepreneurs and business leaders need to consider now if their organisations are to survive.
Kodak’s recent filing for bankruptcy protection shows how iconic brands can become unstuck when disruptive technologies radically change markets. Adapting from servicing a huge near-monopoly in industrial processing of film, to distributed, low-volume, in-home and high street print-on-demand appears to have been too much for Kodak. It’s a change-challenge that other businesses may soon face.
Over the last 25 years, 3D printing technologies have revolutionised new product development, particularly prototyping. Developers used to wait weeks for models to be made. A matter of hours are now the norm in leading design studios - all thanks to a variety of technologies which make three-dimensional shapes to replicate computer design data. Businesses don’t need to buy 3D printers to benefit. Just like in the photography sector, numerous commercial bureaux provide the services to individuals and organisations that choose not to make what can still be a big investment.
Now technology developers are moving the same 3D print processes into manufacturing. Where there’s a need for speed and short run production it can be an economic choice, particularly for high-value products.
3D print enables businesses to think big, yet stay agile on small budgets. With no tooling or lead times, it’s a perfect production technique for us, enabling rapid design customisation and eliminating the need to hold stock.
- Philip Charlton, Managing Director, Renephra
Today, Lucid Innovation and other design teams are using 3D print to accelerate low-volume medical device production. Industrial design studios are effectively becoming flexible, mini-manufacturers. Renephra, a University of Manchester spin-out, is using our printed devices in clinical trials, accelerating its development of ground-breaking treatments for end-stage renal disease.
Renephra MD Philip Charlton says: “3D print enables businesses to think big, yet stay agile on small budgets. With no tooling or lead times, it’s a perfect production technique for us, enabling rapid design customisation and eliminating the need to hold stock.”
But is 3D print just another niche manufacturing process for specialists? Why should marketers, financiers and corporate management care? Right now, compared to moulded production parts, 3D print production in volume is relatively slow. It’s costly and the materials and finishes available are limited.
With our 3D printer whirring away in the background making another batch of specialist medical devices, the team at Lucid Innovation got thinking about the opportunities for a technology at a tipping point.
Exactly the same barriers presented themselves to the early adopters of digital photography – barriers of price, quality and choice that are not just long gone. In the transformation, consumers have come to expect far more.
People today expect to create great images with a cheap (or free) camera. We expect the choice to keep our memories digital, or to customise images, print onto paper, cards or t-shirts at home. We expect more specialist services to be accessible, allowing us to pop into a high street photo-shop to get big prints, put our pictures on a canvas or even have them applied to ceramics.
A similar transformation of consumer expectation will affect different sectors, thanks to 3D print. Printer manufacturers see huge potential in lower cost machines. “If we can democratise access to the toolbox, our user base will increase”, says 3D Systems Chief Executive Officer Abraham Reichental. “This technology is going to end up in your kids’ bedrooms and on the factory floor.” (1).
Industry commentators like Terry Wohlers, agree, citing the toy market as a prime target. As the technology inevitably gets cheaper, home or in-store 3D printers could change the way we develop, market, distribute and buy toys. This could enable, or force major shift in business models.
Designers already use component files downloaded off the web. It won’t be long before toys are available to make on cheap home printers, enabling a host of new product opportunities to become possible. It might not be the end of the traditional boxed gift, but an in-home 3D printer offers incredible after-sale potential.
Why not accessorise Barbie,make more Lego, or mend Bob the Builder’s broken tools straight away? Why not make another twenty Transformers, or one that’s twice as big, or one in different colours? Why not connect digital content back to the real world, download characters from video games, perhaps to print as trophies as we progress to higher levels within the games?
Consumer choices could be transformed. The careful control that brands managers exert over their intellectual property could be challenged, as could current toy safety regulations. You might say print-on-demand could be a “grey” area in product liability.
For marketers, this may not be just engaging consumers in fun choices. There’s also an opportunity to link a relatively high ticket price 3D printer product into product range.
Toys are just one potential opportunity, but if 3D print makes even a small impression on this enormous market, it would have major business implications. Innovators like Apple have thrived by developing their revenue model from a reliance on developing custom hardware, into phenomenal growth distributing content generated by others. The big players in the toy market, and others could follow.
The scale of this one opportunity is colossal. In September 2011, the equivalent of over 60,000 twenty-foot containers of toys landed in the USA alone. 89% of these originated from China(2). China’s impressive manufacturing infrastructure, relatively low production set-up and low labour cost is a major factor in enticing so much production, keeping so many containers shipping half-way around the world and tying up so much finance in the process.
With 3D print at home, labour costs disappear. Many design restrictions disappear when, unlike moulding plastics, virtually any shape, mechanism, or assembly of shapes can be made at once. Forget the design and manufacture of elaborate protective packaging – you no longer need it. Lose the cartons, pallets, distribution and retail costs. Forget the finance for tooling, stock, insurances and the long lead times before most current products reach the market.
All of a sudden, agile, design-led market entrants have the option to adopt a different – perhaps more sustainable – business model. All of a sudden the infrastructure of bigger businesses and advantages of low-cost economies look less critical to mass-market product launch.
In September 2011, the equivalent of over 60,000 twenty-foot containers of toys landed in the USA alone. 89% of these originated from China.
Perhaps most importantly, any entrepreneurial organisations could take more risks, developing more customised products, effectively exploiting the opportunity to bypass the biggest block to product launch – banks and their stranglehold on finance for growth.
This disruptive business model won’t make sense for all markets, products or organisations. However the potential applications will grow far beyond mechanical parts. Multi-component mechanisms, multi-material and multi-part products can be made – right now. Designers have created 3D print fabric. Researchers are developing integrated printed electronics into components.(3) Even buildings have benefitted from 3D print technologies.
And of course, opportunities always come with associated threats. Virtually anybody will be able to access the technology to make many things immediately, given a design file. The potential for piracy is immense and we only have to look to the entertainment industry to see how disruptive technology has delivered mixed results for established businesses. But measures have been taken within the entertainment industry to (both technological and legislative) to combat this, and it isn’t unreasonable to think the same measures could be applied to a 3D-print industry.
This is a technology that won’t go away. Entrepreneurs that build businesses around the opportunities of 3D print have a real opportunity to thrive, and bypass the bank-manager in the process.
To find out how Lucid Innovation can help you with your prototyping requirements, please contact us here.