One reason for the rise of integration of 3D printers in the last couple of years was the sudden impact of lockdowns and travel restrictions on product development and production. Collapsing global supply chains forced many businesses and industries to explore production alternatives and 3D printing was quickly identified as an ideal solution. According to industry analysts, the pandemic saw utilization of 3D print technology explode to become a $63 billion global market in 2021.
With the ability to print products onsite now possible, this technology is being used from the medical field to engineering. Rather then navigate complex supply chains and pay high costs for production and distribution, companies can use 3D printing to develop products quickly and as needed, drastically reducing inefficiencies across industries.
Beyond production, the benefits of 3D printing are becoming more and more accessible to the everyday consumer, with many companies rushing to offer the technology to their customers. MakerBot are leading the charge in creating low-priced and easy-to-use 3D printers for everyday consumers. Beyond producing affordable print hardware, MakerBot are helping create an entire ecosystem of downloadable designs that will make personal printer ownership both viable and attractive. Everyday consumers will soon be able to print their products within their own homes, putting production powers into their own hands and necessitating higher value offerings from companies.
What this kind of instant convenience makes possible is a greater potential for personalisation than ever before. To see how 3D printing is further tipping the scales of power toward consumers, consider recent advancements in the printing of consumer goods such as shoes.
The Australian-based orthotics company Korthotics is a fantastic case-in-point of what’s possible with modern 3D print techniques. In partnership with traditional print company Konica Minolta, Korthotics has developed world-leading custom-made orthotics printed using materials ranging from plastic to titanium, aluminium, rubber and carbon fibres. In the past few years, all the major shoe manufacturers, including Nike, Adidas and New Balance, have taken significant steps toward 3D printing, making personalisation easily accessible to customers.
Former New Balance CEO Robert DeMartini stated in 2016 that his company was working on a design for 3D-printed running shoes. “It’s really just the beginning’, DeMartini said. ‘As personalisation takes the next step, and as the 3D ecosystem gains steam, we’re envisioning being able to print these in consumers’ homes.”
Beyond footwear, 3D printer personalisation is revolutionising food. While food printers are already creating designer cookies, pastries and chocolates, the significant shift will occur when restaurants and households can use these printers to create entire personalized meals in their kitchens using 3D printing technology.
As specialised diets become more commonplace, 3D-printed food is poised to enable more personalised on-demand eating experiences. The creator of the industry leading Foodini 3D food printer, Lynette Kucsma, predicts that by the mid 2030s, “3D food printers will become a common kitchen appliance in both home and professional kitchens, similar to how an oven or a microwave are common appliances in kitchens today.” Setting aside the obvious bias in Kucsma’s prediction, the trend toward printed and customized meals in consumers' homes will be significant if she is even half right.
With this unprecedented convenience and customisation so easily at hand, 3D printing enables a plethora of innovative solutions to problems we have battled for decades. As the materials available for use in 3D printers have expanded to encompass stainless steel, ceramics and even advanced alloys, the possibilities for the application of this technology have also proliferated.
At a large scale, home builders have begun using 3D print techniques in construction. One of the pioneers in the field, The Dubai Future Foundation, forecasts that by 2025 25% of new buildings in Dubai will be constructed using 3D printing, with steps toward such a vision similarly being taken in Germany. In an inspiring example of the potential for 3D printing construction, the San Francisco-based charity New Story has partnered with Texas construction giant ICON to design and build affordable housing for unsheltered families. The charity’s first 3D printed 50-home community was opened in early 2021 in Tabasco, Mexico, with scores of new locations scheduled for other low-cost, functional and durable dwellings.
Even where 3D printing is not the primary construction method, it promises to revolutionize the economic and environmental impacts of the building industry. This was most clearly evidenced by a research team at the Zurich University for Science and Technology which demonstrated a technique for using prefabricated 3D print panels which reduce concrete consumption in construction projects by half. 
In the medical arena, 3D printing has shown great promise with significant breakthroughs resulting in the ‘bioprinting’ of skin, bone, heart and vascular tissue. Doctors have even discovered how to print liver cells that can be used to create transplant organs. It is truly amazing technology that presents such exciting possibilities when you consider that an average of 21 people die each day waiting for organ transplants. Better still, 3D printed organ replacement tissue using a patient’s own cells eliminates the danger of rejection after transplant.
3D printing brings with it a vast array of possibilities, enabled by the convenience and customisation that are fundamental to its value offering. With the technology quickly progressing, its presence will be revolutionary for customers and companies alike.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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