A Commentary on Todd Grimm’s TCT Keynote

revolution, 3d Printing, If you’re a regular reader of this blog, it should come as no surprise to learn that Todd Grimm is not only a contributor to this space but also its editor. In that role, he lends me his keen insight into how he views the world of additive manufacturing.

Todd and I agree on many aspect of the 3D printing world: where it’s going, its applications, etc. Where our opinions diverge is in our discussions of how close we are to seeing 3D printing make sweeping changes to manufacturing.

In Todd’s keynote speech at TCT Live 2012, he concludes his remarks about the future of additive manufacturing (AM) by saying,  “There is a rainbow out there for us, with a fantastic future. I just don’t believe that rainbow is within grasping distance. Its miles and miles away.”

In some regards, I think that Todd’s right. For many industries, immediately switching manufacturing schemes to AM for a majority of products seems unlikely. In realit, 3D Printing is just beginning to prove itself as reliable and flexible enough to meet industry standards and customer demands.

However, there is one place that I do see the “3D printing revolution” being able to make a significant impact in short order – mass customization of consumer goods.

I see four trends converging in the near future to make this a reality.

1. Design Thinking is becoming an increasingly greater force in the development of products. If you’re not familiar with Design Thinking, it’s essentially building a product around a customer’s needs and wants. This type of product design is leading to a customer-centric approach and can be seen in products ranging from furniture to defibrillators.

2. In the past five years, there has been a dramatic shift in the way that we interact with one another. Social media has begun to reshape not only how we communicate but also how we help shape what we want and what we like. Companies are beginning to see the advantage in tapping into social media and mining it to shape product development.  Likewise, consumers are aware that companies are looking for their input, and they’re not shying away from giving them their opinion.

3. Open source is slowly becoming a more acceptable way to build innovation into products. Even seemingly stodgy companies like Microsoft are opening their products to outside innovation and realizing that that it can lead to profound invention at little or no cost.

4. The barriers to becoming a designer (maybe not a good designer, but a designer none-the-less) are being lowered every year. While the most advanced 3d modeling and design software is still too expensive for the hobbyist, free 3D modeling software, like Blender, is allowing anyone to design anything they can imagine.

If you take all of these developments on their own, they don’t lead to a “revolution” in manufacturing. However, if all of these trends could be harnessed into a single business model, they could spell out a boon for 3D printing, at least when it comes to the mass customization of consumer goods.

But maybe that’s Todd’s point. While consumer goods drive the bulk of commerce, it’s the larger, more complex products like cars, aircraft, and assembly line robots that will resist AM the longest. Those goods aren’t designed to be tailored to the individual. Their very existence is embedded in the idea of mass manufacturing. Maybe that’s a paradigm that will be broken in the future. Maybe not.

While I know that rainbow isn’t here yet, I think it’s just around the bend, not miles and miles away.  And while it may seem counter-intuitive, I think that brings Todd and I into greater agreement. The revolution isn’t going to be fueled by some technological singularity, it’s going to be an evolution. Maybe that evolution will begin with the mass customization of consumer goods. 

Images Courtesy of Wikipedia