Saturday, February 16, 2013

Harvard Business Review: 3-D Printing Will Change the World

Richard A. D'Aveni writes at HBR:
To anyone who hasn’t seen it demonstrated, 3-D printing sounds futuristic—like the meals that materialized in the Jetsons’ oven at the touch of a keypad. But the technology is quite straightforward: It is a small evolutionary step from spraying toner on paper to putting down layers of something more substantial (such as plastic resin) until the layers add up to an object. And yet, by enabling a machine to produce objects of any shape, on the spot and as needed, 3-D printing really is ushering in a new era.

As applications of the technology expand and prices drop, the first big implication is that more goods will be manufactured at or close to their point of purchase or consumption. This might even mean household-level production of some things. (You’ll pay for raw materials and the IP—the software files for any designs you can’t find free on the web.) Short of that, many goods that have relied on the scale efficiencies of large, centralized plants will be produced locally. Even if the per-unit production cost is higher, it will be more than offset by the elimination of shipping and of buffer inventories. Whereas cars today are made by just a few hundred factories around the world, they might one day be made in every metropolitan area. Parts could be made at dealerships and repair shops, and assembly plants could eliminate the need for supply chain management by making components as needed.

Another implication is that goods will be infinitely more customized, because altering them won’t require retooling, only tweaking the instructions in the software. Creativity in meeting individuals’ needs will come to the fore, just as quality control did in the age of rolling out sameness.

These first-order implications will cause businesses all along the supply, manufacturing, and retailing chains to rethink their strategies and operations. And a second-order implication will have even greater impact. As 3-D printing takes hold, the factors that have made China the workshop of the world will lose much of their force.


  1. This is Scott. Advancement of this technology, in my opinion, will be limited by the kinds of materials you can print with. If you want to make a single solid object out of one kind of plastic, that'll be easy. But if you want a complicated object with different materials composing different parts, that's a long time coming. Materials science will have to catch up and figure out how to make printable versions of different types of material. Solid plastics and other polymers are easy, but how about metals or fabrics or etc? I can envision a complicated printer with multiple printheads for different materials, much like modern inkjets have different colors. But developing the different starting materials to put in those cartridges and the chemistry and mechanics that'll get them to solidify on command will be the biggest challenge to make this technology really take off. Printing something extremely complex, like a hamburger from the Jetsons' food replicator, would take dozens or hundreds or thousands of different print heads squirting out dozens or hundreds or thousands of different stock materials. Can you imagine printing even a 2D hamburger nowadays? How about a 2D scratch-n-sniff sticker of a hamburger that smells like beef, bun, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, cheese, in all the right places? We're not even close to that. Thus a 3D hamburger is a long, long, long, long way off. This is the kind of perspective that we will soon grow to realize. 3D printing isn't going to solve everything and be capable of everything all at once. First we'll get simple parts, of plastics and resins and etc. It is rather simple to make these objects in complicated shapes as long as they're from the same material. The longterm challenge will be in developing different materials and then printing multiple materials into the same object. That will require solving some extremely interesting and exciting challenges in the field of materials science.

    1. Printing a 3D hamburger is not that hard. There are already food printers out there that can print different layers. The real challenge is printing metals, because that requires a vacuum chamber and high heat. However, enterprising souls are working on that:

    2. As we wait for the technological advancement of 3D, there's no reason why you can't have a smorgasbord of parts -- some delivered in classic ways combined with others that are made by 3D printing.

      So If you build a car, you buy the chassis, etc through classic mechanisms, but you create the body from a 3D printer.

      There are also a lot of metal parts that might not have to be metal if they're easily reproducible. Today's auto engine is made up of metals, but maybe you can make one out of polymers that runs on gas, steam, air, etc. that only lasts a few months or a year. If it's cheap, light, and easy to replace, it might still be a better deal than a metal engine.

    3. @ Ed, re: food printers. This is Scott. I don't doubt that you can print something that maybe semi-looks like a hamburger, but it's definitely not going to fool anyone with a real tongue and tastebuds into believing that it's a real hamburger. I'm talking about realistic texture and flavor (especially texture). Soft bun, crisp lettuce, succulent tomato, etc. Current technology might be able to take liquid meat paste and spray it into the shape of a burger patty, but what you're going to get is baloney, not a burger.

    4. Metals are already being printed by Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) to produce final or near-final metal components in a variety of structural metals. The finished parts are stronger than cast metals but not as strong as forged metals. DMLS machines are expensive but not out of sight of smaller companies; I saw one at a trade show recently advertised for $680,000.

  2. Reminds me of a story (ok, everybody yawn...)
    This is true, BTW.
    Back in the day ('70's, silicon valley), Xerox came up with a breakthrough color copier. So good was it, that Treasury got concerned regarding money quality copies.
    So they contracted with SRI to see if they could come up with a passable twenty using said copier (prototype at that time).
    This job was assigned to a buddy of mine. This is what he did:
    1.Etched ink off $1.00 bills with a Q-switched YAG laser to get good blank paper.
    2. Copied $20.00 bill onto said paper.
    3. Followed by T-men, strolled through Palo Alto passing said copies far and wide. The T-men collected the bills from stunned sales people after the fact.
    4. Score: 100%. No one caught the fakes.
    5. Treasury leaned on Xerox big time to "de-tune" the copier, which they did.
    I see something similar coming from BATF. But hackers today being what they are (good and plentiful), I see many excellent hacks in the future! Yea!

  3. The most immediate effect of the advancements in this technology will be for prototyping, as the ability for in-house prototyping will increase as prices come down. This will both reduce cost and speed up the development process.

    I'm more interested in seeing how the government reacts to this. It is much easier to control production of, how shall I say it, products the gov't doesn't want us to have, when mass production is more centralized, as now. I predict that the Feds will want to tightly control who has access to this technology.

    As previously states, the state of the technology limits what can be produced now, but now that people can see the potential, progress will be rapid.


  4. There must already be some rearranging of ideas in the shallow heads of the self-styled intellectuals to make it appear as if the guNvernment was the originator and inventor of 3D printing.


  5. In my experience revolutionary technology changes are never anticipated.

    I started an Internet Service Provider in 1993. Go back and read some of the articles about the Internet from shortly before that time. They said, you can view porn ( and send email, but what good is that? No one envisioned what it would become.

    Microsoft did not include Internet Protocol in its OS until years later. I had to distribute shareware Internet Protocol for both Windows and Mac (also blind to what was occurring) to my customers. McDonalds refused to buy "" from a journalist for a few hundred dollar. I'll bet a few years later they paid a few hundred thousand dollars to that journalist for it.

    No one said, looking at the technology before it was in application, this is going to revolutionize banking, music, video distribution, newspapers, etc. After it started revolutionizing those to a fairly large degree, people began to notice.

  6. Too late. The gov't will not be able to control this technology, any more than they could control the printing press. People are already experimenting with guns. Can whiskey be far behind? Yep, maybe not in my life time, but someday each house will have their own replicator.

    1. I have five so far. My wife says I have an addiction problem. I'm a medical device designer so technically I can tell her they're all for business. But they're also super fun for making any kind of do-hickey you need around the house. Makerbot and Ultimaker are great for the price of a good mountain bike. And if you've got Bentley money lying around, you might decide to move on to a Direct Metal Laser Sintering machine that makes do-hickeys out of stainless steel etc.

      Yup. This train has left the station and the guv-boys can't do a thing about it. They can fret sure. Reminds me of when the post office mused about controlling fax transmissions in the 80s. Hah.