The shoes Mary Huang wears around her New York neighborhood are made of finely spun nylon, and have cutouts similar to a spider’s web. They can be bought online, but, for anyone with a 3D printer, they can also be downloaded and printed.
The recent surge in desktop 3D printers has allowed Huang and others to design and produce products on small scales as a precursor for wide distribution. The recent mainstream availability of the printers are create access to the manufacturing sector for both individuals and small-scale manufacturers, many of whom would have once been deterred by the prohibitive initial costs of starting a business.
As of this month, 3D printers can now be bought at office supplier Staples for $1,300. The printers, made by Cubify, a 3D printer manufacturer, is a competitor of MakerBot, another 3D printer manufacturer with machines that cost slightly more, ranging from $2,000 to $2,800.
The draw of 3D printing isn’t only in the affordability of the machines. The technology allows for a manufacturing agility that is less common in large factories. If Huang wanted to change the size of the heel of her shoe, she could do it easily, because there is no mold to contend with or overseas manufacturer to organize. She would simply adjust the digital file, which translates instantly, and, most importantly, without any associated cost.
3D printers also level the playing field in terms of labor costs, since printing products off a computer takes the labor-intensive part of manufacturing out of the equation, enabling companies to invest resources elsewhere.
“When it comes to small batch production, this technology has tremendous advantage in terms of almost zero lead time, and almost zero upfront investment,” said Hod Lipson, co-author of “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing.” “It also allows you to make objects that are more complex than what you can normally produce or afford to produce using injection molding or conventional techniques.”
The 3D printing industry, which includes both equipment sales and products, is worth about $2 billion. That’s less than one percent of all manufacturing in the U.S. However, it’s a growing industry, and has grown an average 20 percent per year over the last decade. In 2011 alone, the industry grew 29 percent, according to a report published by Wohlers Associates, which tracks trends in manufacturing.
Growth is expected to continue: Wohlers predicted the industry will be worth $3.7 billion in 2015, and then double in size by 2019.
Some have warned that the rise of 3D printing will render larger companies unable to keep up, but those fears are largely unfounded. “3D printing can’t compete with mass manufacturing if you want to make a lot of identical objects in really large volumes. Big companies will always own mass manufacturing of objects that don’t lend themselves to customization or consumers won’t pay the premium for customization,” Lipson said.
Still, the growth could mean that manufacturers of some products could suffer. Consumers who once went to the store to pick up something simple, like a replacement part, could instead just print it at home using a design file that may or may not be someone else’s intellectual property.
Toys are popular to make at home, which are usually made with design files downloaded from the internet. Lipson said this can be looked at two ways: “One one hand, somebody spent a lot of time designing the product to go on the shelf at Toys ‘R’ Us, and their intellectual property is being stolen in an unfair way. But on the other hand, isn’t this wonderful that kids can see this, and innovate and create something that is potentially better?”
The rules of intellectual property as it relates to 3D printing are still hazy. “Right now, copying and reproducing physical objects is not governed by patents, copyrights ot trademarks at all,” Lipson said.
At printing labs across the country, like the 3D printing lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, director Vishal Sachdev agreed that there’s a lack of awareness about the legalities of printed products.“I think the same thing happened with music when initially it became digital and available over the Internet,” he said. “Consumers are copying and sharing it without realizing the copyright implications.”
He is already seeing the impact of 3D printing accessibility in his life. “I have two kids and they keep telling me, ‘Hey dad, can we print this out, can we print that out? Can we print Lego blocks on it?’”
“We’ve printed some in the lab,” he said, “to show how close they are to the real thing.”