ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK: Looming 3D printing revolution has vast potential to disrupt
The average consumer who has tried out 3D printing has experienced it as a laborious, expensive way to print rough-edged plastic trinkets. That, in turn, has tended to scare the average business away from the nascent industry.
This response has acted as a camouflage of the massive progress being made in producing objects on demand.
A company with a deep legacy of printing on paper, HP, is betting that 3D printing will be a major revenue category in the next decade. This week, at its sprawling Innovation Lab outside Barcelona, Spain, it revealed the vast range of commercial and industrial products it is making possible to be printed on demand. From a BMW intake manifold to dental moulds, to prosthetic limbs to printers that print themselves, it has moved dramatically beyond plastic toys.
Nick Lazaridis, president of HP for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, told Business Times that HP's initial foray into 3D printing was a bit like Ford saying you could have any colour as long as it was black.
"We could print any object, as long as it was black and plastic. It's a new business for us, but it has evolved rapidly. Last year we started printing with metal. We don't know everything about everything, but we're best in the world at a handful of things. Our 3D printing technology is born out of our own inkjet technology."
Lazaridis pointed out that many companies made the mistake of thinking of the industry in terms of its intrinsic value, measured in sales of printers and materials.
"If you had a total monopoly of 3D printing, the market would be worth around $40bn [about R562bn]. But if you look at the industry that this is going to disrupt, namely manufacturing, that's a $12-trillion industry."
Even more dramatic, he believes, is the potential impact on distribution, warehousing and energy needs.
"This smartphone or bottle is being manufactured in a low-cost country. But you have to build factories, manufacture the products, warehouse them, put them on planes and boats, warehouse them again, put them on trucks again, before they arrive on the shelves. That leaves behind a massive carbon footprint.
"When you talk 3D printing, you can design in Spain or SA, you can manufacture on demand in SA, and deliver in 24 hours because it is printed in a warehouse a few blocks from where you live. You don't build a hundred thousand units hoping to sell them; you build on demand.
"That will result in lower cost, higher efficiency, and you can design things that you couldn't do traditionally. From a sustainability point of view, there is no end of benefit, from emissions and carbon footprint to recycling and reusage."
The downside, he admitted, is that it will jeopardise the jobs of millions of factory workers around the world. The response, he believes, should not be to hold back change, but to prepare today's students for careers in design for just-in-time manufacture.
"Instead of millions of low-cost factory workers, why not have more higher paid designers? It will take decades to become mainstream, but we have to start preparing."
• Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee