Finding the Real Niches for 3D Printing
Posted by Plish on February 3, 2013
3-D printing is cool and it has its place, but we keep asking it to do everything. We want it to be the go-to technology for making toys, utensils, art, food, etc. And yes, there are companies like Ponoko that are built around these technologies, and they’re quite successful, but the question still needs to be asked:
Are we using 3-D printing tech to its strengths?
Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, and author of Fab:The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop, sums it up well by saying:”…The killer app for digital fabrication is personal fabrication. Not to make what you can buy in Wal-Mart, but to make what you can’t buy at Wal-Mart.”
To “make what you can’t buy at Walmart.”
That’s exactly the point!
Yet, if you look at what 3-D printing is being used for, with the exception of some creative art and its use by architectural and design firms, 3-D printing is, by and large, being used to make what can be bought at Walmart, or some other store.
Recently Nokia, in its attempt to ride the buzz of 3-D printing, started providing files so that people can print their own phone cases. Yes, people with some 3-D design software acumen can make their own cases, and no doubt will come up with some really cool ideas. But, the point remains, these same parts can be bought finished and then customized with colors, overlays, etc., and (this is a biggie) no software knowledge is required.
So that brings me to the main point of this post.
If 3-D printing is ever going to truly blossom and be a force to reckoned with, it needs to be more than just another way to do something that is already being done. It needs to stand on its own as a technology that says, “Only I can do this and without me you will never see this come to fruition!”
For that statement to be made, we first must truly understand the strengths of 3-D printing technologies. Once we know what can and can’t be done, we can then look for those problems for which 3-D printing is the ultimate solution. It’s a little bit backward to think this way, but it often happens that new technologies start as solutions looking for problems.
So, let’s put the power of the web to work and crowdsource the future of 3-D printing. To do that, we need to answer the following questions:
What is it that 3-D printing can do that other technologies can’t?
Where are 3-D printing’s strengths?
What can 3-D printing do that molding technologies or machining, or thermoforming can’t do?
Here’s a quick, short list to get the ball rolling:
Make things in layers
- It can create by controlled melting/bonding and curing type processes
- Can make hollow objects
- Can make objects within objects
- Can reproduce digital data in 3-D (This enables us to hold something that otherwise can’t be held, i.e. Using CT scan data to build skulls for surgical planning)
I’m sure there is more that can be added to this list. Please share what you think 3-D printing does well. Feel free to either comment here or on twitter, use #3Dstrengths. I’ll compile the responses and let’s see if we can’t find a niche for 3-D printing that brings real, sustainable value beyond what 3-D printing is being used for today. If you have a niche idea, use #3Dniches.
Thanks and looking forward to the responses!!