Interview: The future of 3D printing

A greater variety of products, higher quality materials, and bolder designs could become available for consumers if the cost of 3D printing continues to fall.

A greater variety of products, higher quality materials, and bolder designs could become available for consumers if the cost of 3D printing continues to fall, says Shapeways.com CEO Peter Weijmarshausen.

We had the opportunity to sit down for a quick chat with Weijmarshausen today to discuss the future of 3D printing. Here are the highlights from what we discussed:

  • The next few years will be more of the same. More people will be trying, using, and working with 3D printers. We'll also be seeing gradual improvements across the board. The amount of materials currently being offered and possible to print will be expanded; some of those materials will include higher quality ceramics and metals. Weijmarshausen said products would be "more beautiful and higher quality."
  • 3D printers will soon be using multiple materials from a single machine. Examples of new products made possible by this change could be iPhone cases with grips and erasers with handles.
  • There will be a gradual decrease in the cost of making things provided there's a concerted cross industry effort to make that happen. Shapeways cannot be cheaper if machines are expensive or slower; the cost of materials is important too. Shapeways can only cut waste out of its own system, he said. "People are currently price-sensitive -- with large things especially."
  • 3D printing has the ability to change how the value chain of making products works. In the old days, marketing needed to figure out if people wanted to buy something, then design-tested, and then it would be mass manufactured if it made it to market. That's a lengthy process, and 3D printing shortens the process immensely, he said. For example, a 3D printer was used to create a cover for the iPad just days after it was available for purchase. The time to market is condensed.
  • There will be more variety in products, because designers won't have to sell in bulk to make money. As little as 5-10 units could be profitable, he said. More people will try to make products -- even for small audiences.
  • People will be able to design products from home and never see a retailer.
  • 3D printing will be a boon for hobbyists that want customizations that are meaningful to them.

Weijmarshausen compared the impact of 3D printing on the consumer product supply chain to changes in software development. People had to buy boxed copies of software from retailers before the Internet on floppies or CD-ROM and upgrade cycles took longer. Mail ordering only changed distribution slightly.

The Internet has made possible more collaborative development (open source projects) and software is now continuously updating. Small tools and apps that appeal to smaller groups are making money. The same will happen with physical products, he said.

(image credit: macouno.com/Shapeways)

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