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HOW 3D PRINTERS ARE EMPOWERING YOUR CONSUMERS

Wed Jun 6 2020 Michael McQueen

Perhaps the biggest threat to the stability of big companies is the empowerment of their customers. As the everyday consumer is gaining a louder voice and greater access to both information and options, businesses are having to fight harder and harder for their attention.

What businesses may not have expected is the further empowerment that would be brought about by 3D printing.

While 3D printing has been a fringe technology for decades, the numbers give some indication of how quickly it is moving towards the mainstream. In 2016 more than 278,000 home desktop 3D printers were sold worldwide, and within a few short years it is forecast that the global revenue of the 3D printing industry will top $21 billion. Driving this march towards the mainstream, Siemens predicts that 3D printing will become 50 per cent cheaper and up to 400 per cent faster within a decade.[1]

As the materials available for use in 3D printers have expanded, so have possibilities and applications for the technology. Gone are the days of being restricted to printing with resin-type plastics. Today, 3D printers can manufacture items using aluminium, stainless steel, ceramics and even advanced alloys.[2]

The current market leader in small-scale residential 3D printers, MakerBot, is leading the charge in creating low-priced and easy-to-use 3D printers for residential purposes. Better yet, MakerBot are helping create an entire ecosystem of downloadable designs that will make personal printer ownership both viable and attractive. [3]

Beyond domestic applications, 3D printing has shown great promise in the medical arena with significant breakthroughs resulting in the ‘bioprinting’ of skin[4] and bone,[5] and heart and vascular tissue. Doctors have even discovered how to print liver cells that can be used to create transplant organs.[6] It presents such exciting possibilities when you consider that an average of twenty-one people die each day waiting for organ transplants. Better still, the 3D-printed organ replacement using a patient’s own cells eliminates the danger of rejection after transplant.[7] Researchers at the University of Toronto made headlines recently with their invention of a handheld 3D printer for skin grafts using a patient’s own stem cells.[8]

In the world of pharmaceuticals, 3D printing is poised to change the game too. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the first 3D-printed drug with a view to making a wide range of pharmaceuticals printable in the years to come.[9] Considering how lucrative and heavily regulated the pharmaceutical industry is, the ramifications of this change could be enormous.

Beyond highly specialised medical applications, recent years have seen 3D printing applied in ways that give some indication of how truly disruptive the technology will be. Consider the Chinese construction company, Winsun, that 3D printed 10 single-storey homes in a 24-hour period in 2013 and went on to print a five-storey apartment block a year later.[10] 

Not to be outdone by their Chinese counterparts, in March 2017 an American construction company named Apis Cor 3D printed a home in a day and claimed it all cost as little as $10,000.[11]

Looking to the automotive arena, 2015 saw American engineering firm TE Connectivity 3D print a working motorcycle from scratch. While it was an impressive feat and aesthetically beautiful, the bike did have the drawback of only boasting a top speed of 24 kilometres per hour.

3D printing is even transforming the final frontier of space, with the first range of 3D printed items constructed aboard the International Space Station in late 2014. 

While printing heart valves, jet engine parts and houses may all be very interesting, 3D printing gets truly exciting when you consider its implications for the everyday consumer.

I was recently doing some consulting work with the executive team of a large electrical hardware manufacturer. During our discussions about potential disruptions to their business, I asked how seriously they were taking the threat of 3D printing. The general consensus amongst the group was that it needn’t be of serious concern.

In an effort to challenge this assumption, I asked them to imagine a scenario where someone accidentally cracks the wall-mounted power point casing at home while vacuuming. In the present day, to fix the broken unit you’d have to either head down to your local hardware store to buy a replacement case (likely manufactured by the company I was working with) or order one online. The executive team around the table nodded their heads.

I then shared an alternative scenario where, upon breaking the power point casing, you’d log on to a website such as thingiverse.com and purchase for less than a dollar the exact design file for the power point cover you’d broken. You’d then proceed to 3D print your own replacement cover without leaving your home (or purchasing any product produced by my client company or their competitors).

While this sounded far-fetched and unrealistic to those in the room, it could become a reality sooner than most people think.

No longer will a customer need to rely on businesses as a middleman with slow delivery times and complicated customer service, but will have full, instant and inexpensive access to their desired product.

With food, clothing, appliances and everyday technology already available through 3D printing, which already has a place in local school technology rooms and colleges, the threat of this access is much more immediate than you think.

What are you doing to keep your customers coming to you for the products they need?

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 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 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case For Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics, michaelmcqueen.net/programs.

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[1] Columbus, L. 2015, ‘2015 Roundup Of 3D Printing Market Forecasts And Estimates’, Forbes, 31 March.

[2] Schwab, K. 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Penguin, London, p. 163.

[3] Rothman, W. 2014, ‘MakerBot Unveils a 3-D Printer Nearer to $1,000’, The Wall Street Journal, 6 January.

[4] Jacquith, T. 2016, ‘Scientists 3D Print Cartilage Using an ‘ink’ Composed of Human Cells’, Futurism, 16 March.

[5] Galeon, D & Marquart, S. 2016, ‘Doctors Can Now 3D-Print Bones On Demand, Thanks to a New ‘Hyperelastic’ Material’, Futurism, 30 September.

[6] Schwab, K. 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Penguin, London, p. 23.

[7] Ford, M. 2015, Rise of the Robots, Basic Books, New York, p. 180.

[8] Peters, A. 2018, ‘This Portable 3D Printer Could Print Skin Over Wounds’, Fast Company, 5 August.

[9] Murphy, M. 2016, ‘We’re Closer To A Future Where We Can 3D Print Anything’, Quartz, 5 April.

[10] Smith, D. 2015, ‘A Chinese Construction Company Just 3D Printed A 3-Storey Mansion’, Business Insider, 21 January.

[11] Frost, N. 2017, ‘San Francisco Firm Apis Cor Have 3D-Printed A Home In A Day For Less Than $15k’, Domain.com.au, 6 March.