One of the more interesting areas developing in manufacturing today is the three-dimensional printing of parts. The process is in vogue for the rapid prototyping gang. It merited a front cover story in The Economist’s April 2012 issue and was a hot area at IMTS. Recently, somebody printed a guitar of playable quality. Another party copied most of a gun, which made some law enforcement folks shiver. With the availability of guns legally and illegally, plastic guns are probably the least of our worries.
Publicly held firms like Stratasys have been bid up to stratospheric levels, partly because sales have been robust, but more because the expectations that a Hewlett Packard, desperate for a home run – or just a whiff of hope for a withering PC business – might pay a fat price for the promise of 3D printing.
Today the profits come from the relatively tiny rapid prototyping firms. The caché derives from the hobbyist, tinkerer and entrepreneurial first adopters. Will this group embrace the technology as it comes down in price, or will the 3D printer be tomorrow’s bread making machine? (I did love my bread maker back in the day, but I threw it out long ago).
To me, the most disturbing aspect of 3D printing is its potential to disrupt the value of intellectual property. The Internet has just about killed the newspaper and magazine industry and made a mess of the traditional music business. If you can make your own Gibson guitar at home, the real Gibson is going to be hurting.
Perhaps the whole idea of patents, copyrights, and brands will be obsolete in a few years. Maybe the meaning of “property” in intellectual property will soon be an artifact. The high-stakes legal battles taking place between the tech giants like Apple, Google and Samsung may be the last vestiges of the concept that intellectual “property” can actually be identified, protected, bought and sold. Eastman Kodak, now in bankruptcy, hoped its trove of patents were worth billions of dollars, but struggled to get any bids.
So is 3D printing the eventual replacement for the Mazak lathe, the Minster press, or the CNC router? Could be, if you have a 10-year time frame. I am curious if the people in the machining community see it as the next big thing in manufacturing, or the next bread machine – destined to end up in the gadget scrap heap by 2020.
Question: Is 3D printing a niché player, or will it be a major industrial/consumer product?