Business, Tech

Press “Print” To Manufacture

The cover of the February 12-18, 2011 issue of "The Economist."
The cover of the February 12-18, 2011
issue of “The Economist.”

In the “The Third Wave,” futurist Alvin Toffler predicted that consumers would come to exercise much greater control over the products they consumed, thereby becoming “prosumers.”

Back in 1980, when the book was published, it was a science-fiction plot. From today’s perspective, it seems terrifically prescient—and a science fact—thanks to a whiz-bang technology called 3D printing.

First, you call up a blueprint on your computer screen and tinker with its shape and colour where necessary. Then you press print.

A machine nearby whirs into life and builds up the object gradually, either by depositing material from a nozzle or by selectively solidifying a thin layer of plastic or metal dust using tiny drops of glue or a tightly focused beam.

Products are thus built up by progressively adding material, one layer at a time: hence, the technology’s other name, additive manufacturing.

Eventually the object in question—a spare part for your car, a lampshade, a violin—pops out. The beauty of the technology is that it doesn’t need to happen in a factory.

To the business world, the implications of this development are many.

Will this cut the cost of producing a good bit? Yes.

By getting rid of production lines.

Will this give rise to mass customization? Yes.

For all kinds of products, from shoes to spectacles to kitchenware.

Will this give a fillip to innovation? Yes.

By reducing the barriers to entry for manufacturing, 3D printing should also promote innovation. If you can design a shape on a computer, you can turn it into an object.

Is it exorbitantly expensive? Not quite.

A basic 3D printer, also known as a fabricator or “fabber”, now costs less than a laser printer did in 1985.

Will this eliminate the need for factories? Not yet.

At the moment the process is possible only with certain materials (plastics, resins, and metals). As with computing in the late 1970s, it’s currently the preserve of hobbyists and workers in a few academic and industrial niches.

Will this decentralize business completely? It could.

Will this do away with the need for outsourcing? It could.

3D printing will undermine the advantage of low-cost, low-wage countries and thus repatriate manufacturing capacity to the rich world.



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