The disruption in areas where 3D printing already works well – including furniture, cutlery, machine tools, car components, toys, garden equipment and so on – will be intense. Some retailers, this author suggests, will be “disintermediated” and go bust, just as music stores have been destroyed by Apple’s iTunes.
So the argument goes, factories based in rich countries will become increasingly viable once again as machines price out even Chinese workers and proximity becomes essential.
It is an interesting proposition, particularly as 3D printing moves beyond its origins in just handling plastics, to working in metals and even mixed materials.
Illustrating how sophisticated the technology is becoming, Extremetech, a technology community, reported recently that medical researchers have already printed artificial bones, tailor-made for people based on scans of their real bones and then implanted to replace bones that have been removed or damaged.
The next challenge, the site says, is to print tissue and create artificial organs using 3D printing.
But it’s the disruptive potential for metal manufacturers that most interests us. Initially, it will be niche opportunities where 3Ds fast-to-market or one-off production runs justify its higher costs, but those costs are coming down, and as they do, the technology will gradually begin to eat into the mass market by fragmenting the supply options for consumers of every kind of widget.
Will the winners be specialist 3D manufacturers or the established players who early-adopt the new technology? That’s still unclear, but any technology that creates new supply options for metal buyers has got to be a good thing in our books.