It seems appropriate that in the week that Margaret Thatcher passed away that I should write about something that has the potential to change the world in which we live every bit as substantially as the way that Margaret Thatcher changed the industrial landscape of the UK during the 1980’s. The “thing” to which I refer is 3D printing. I saw a video a couple of weeks ago that has really set my mind thinking about.
3D printing is not the ability to make a two dimensional image look like a three dimensional image but it is, in effect, the ability to produce or “print” solid objects that have length, width and depth. The technology has been developed slowly over the last 20 years but it is now getting to the point where the commercial uses for this technology are becoming more prevalent.
The first thing that everybody asks is “How does 3D printing work?” The answer to this depends upon the technique that is used to print the object. In the same way that there are different types of traditional printers, laser, ink jet, daisy wheel (if you remember those) there are also different types of technology used for 3D printers. All of these use what is termed “additive technology” and they build up objects by creating a very thin layer and then adding another layer and another until the object is complete. One of the most popular ways to do this is to use a technique called stereolithography. This involves having a very thin layer of a liquid polymer on a platform and passing a laser over the liquid in the shape that you require. The laser causes the polymer to harden and the platform is lowered a little further and the next layer of the object is hardened until the complete object has been formed. The excess polymer liquid can then be drained leaving the completed object.
So why would this change the world? In the video that I saw for an iPad app called “Pottery”. With the app you have a virtual potter’s wheel on your iPad that allows you to create a virtual piece of pottery and decorate it. This is nice but you can then “print” your creation using a 3D printer and it was this that made me start wondering about how this could impact on traditional economies.
Let us start by imagining that we run a successful clicks and mortar department store that sells a lot of lifestyle products both online and in shops up and down the high streets of Britain. At the moment our business will rely upon us finding a designer to design our vase, then a factory (probably in the Far East) to produce our vase. We next have to ship our finished vases to the UK will they will be stored in a distribution depot before being transferred to a shop where they will be bought by our customers.
Now imagine if instead of following the traditional approach outlined above we could instead provide blueprints on our website that users can download and print in their own home. Now we still need to find our designer to create the appropriate designs but we no longer need the factory, the boat to bring the items to the UK, the distribution centre to store the vases, a haulage company to transport the items from the distribution depot to the shop. You might not even need a shop to display them in. All of these are going to lower the costs of producing goods.
From a consumers perspective they have the convenience of being able to effectively download goods into their own home saving them time in going and looking for items in shops, no petrol or parking costs and in the case of a delicate item such as a vase the knowledge that you are less likely to break it transporting it to its final destination.
I have spoken to a few people about this and all of them have started off thinking that 3D printing is a little bit too far in the future to be likely to affect them in their lifetime to then realising that it might and then pointing out that if this does happen it is likely to lead to mass unemployment and will not be a good thing. Hence the reason for saying that 3D printing has the potential to change the world more than Margaret Thatcher.
If you can remember the start of the 1980’s in Britain then you will know that there was a lot of heavy industry in the UK, this has almost all disappeared but people still have jobs, albeit very different jobs to the ones that were prevalent at the start of the 1980’s. In 1801 over 25% of the country’s population was employed in agriculture today that figure is less than 1%. So societies change and evolve and there is always fear of the unknown.
3D printing will not suit every business but there are many items that there are talks of 3D printing being able to produce in the future. Gone will be the days of people saying “I’ve got nothing to wear this evening”. If businesses can sell directly to the public without customers having to wait a couple of days to get their goods than this is likely to see an even greater increase in online sales.
Perhaps the biggest losers in this are local authorities who currently charge businesses high vale business rates to allow stores to be located in the centre of a town. If those same businesses find it is not cost effective to have stores in town centres then there is likely to be a knock effect for council services. Of course it could lead to people moving back into city centres in their droves, particularly as petrol prices continue to rise and people look at ways they can reduce their travel costs.
To those who object to these ideas on moral grounds quoting the social costs of such a paradigm shift in society I would say that a company’s loyalties are with its shareholders and not society. Companies exist to generate profit not to provide employment. We have seen the mechanisation of many industries. During the 1980’s Lee Iacocca was attributed as the CEO who saved the Chrysler Motor Company. At one point they had opened a new factory that used robots to complete most of the manufacturing process. On the opening day Iacocca was giving a tour of the new factory to various dignitaries, including union leaders. At one stage during the tour he pointed to a robot and asked one of the union leaders “How are you going to get those to join your union” and the union leader replied “How are you going to get them to buy your cars?”
I started this whole article out by talking about a video I had seen on YouTube. Here is the same video for you to watch and as you do ask yourself the question “How will 3D printing change the world in which we live?”