This week, 3D printing company Stratasys purchased another 3D printing company, MakerBot, for at least $403 million worth of Stratasys shares. The move makes the newly combined company the undisputed leader in all things 3D printed, and provides a moment to reflect on how far the technology has come.
On the one hand, 3D printing is remarkably exciting. Unlike traditional manufacturing, you don’t need economies of scale. The unit cost of producing one thing is (roughly) the same as the unit cost of producing 10,000 things. On a pure capability level, you can download a design of an object from the Internet and turn it into a real object in your house (or local hackerspace). It’s whoa-quotient is high and as Quartz’s Christopher Mims put it, “The parallels between the personal computing revolution and the one in 3D printing are irresistible.” These machines are finicky, difficult to operate, and expensive now, but just you wait! The price will come down and someone will create the Apple II of 3D printers, and away we all go into the 3D-printed future.
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If 3D printing indeed does become more democratised, then the interfaces and software will become more friendly to the naive users, too. In case it does become a mass-production good, it’s feasible to believe it will revolutionise the retail and consequently all the industries. For example – the idea of buying prints and making your own products – it cuts out an important segment of logistics industry’s market. The other interesting point comes from sustainability and environmental protection. People would be much more prone to recycling, if, for example the recycled materials could be used as raw materials for the prints. Not to mention the possibility of reducing consumerism. The ability to print a broken part would allow us to prolong the lives of our appliances, which would help preserve the nature, and boost innovation, because new products on the market would have to bring significant added value, so people would actually be enticed to replace their old repaired appliances. Based on this, generic products production might significantly decrease. Interesting future awaits us, indeed.