Print my sofa!

Now, I know that 3D printers are currently in their infancy, and currently the variety of materials that can be ‘printed’ is limited, but I expect that will change fairly rapidly. And I cannot wait for the day when I order my new sofa online, go down to the local printing depot (next door to my local corner shop) and pick it up, where it will have been freshly printed overnight.

Now, I know that 3D printers are currently in their infancy (although maturing rapidly: check out this 3D printing pen), and currently the variety of materials that can be ‘printed’ is limited (although circuit boards are already possible, as well as sugar and stone/sand/concrete, and metal), but I expect that will change fairly rapidly. And I cannot wait for the day when I order my new sofa online, go down to the local printing depot (next door to my local corner shop) and pick it up, where it will have been freshly printed overnight.

There are a couple of things that this will change dramatically:

Manufacturing becomes completely non-specialised: In a world where even complex things with moving parts can be printed, many of the objects that we currently buy will be printed, rather than manufactured in the current ways. I’m guessing that in future, only really complex things (like cars?) or things that contain materials that we haven’t been able to ‘print’ (like glass?) will need to be assembled in a specialist factory (possibly from 3D printed parts). So, rather than a factory specialising in making one type of object, printing factories can print as many different things as they have the material for. So, one local print shop could produce a whole variety of products (basically whatever template is sent to them) – from sofas to mugs to jumpers to pencils. The factory line might start to look like a Generation Game conveyor belt.

Manufacturing becomes very local: If all you need to ‘manufacture’ something is a computer, a 3D printer, and the stuff that things are printed out of, you could set up a factory really easily. In fact, you could set one up in your local convenience store. Easy for people to get to, near to where they want to use their freshly printed things, easy to collect from – convenient in fact! Will we soon see apartment blocks with a shared 3D printer as standard? How soon will every home have one?

A return to a making economy: Will the concept of ‘buying’ things become obsolete, and we’ll all go back to ‘making’ (well, printing) what we need?

Distribution: This means that products themselves won’t need to be distributed around the country – they can be printed close to the point of use. The only thing that needs to be physically distributed is the ‘printer ink’ (the materials that the 3D printer will use), and the printers themselves. This could have a massive impact on freight transport, logistics and fuel use.

Ink refills: As with current printers, the most expensive part is the ink refills. I expect that, while 3D printers could be owned and run in the home, the cost will be in buying the material refills, especially where these are more complex than the plastic that is currently printed. How far will we be able to go – will we be able to print fabric?

The rural/urban divide: With products being produced so close to the point of use, there will be little disadvantage in living in a rural community – as long as you’ve got a 3D printer close by it won’t matter that you’re a long way away from the sofa superstore.

Speed of manufacture: With local printing factories able to print stuff off, there’ll be no need to wait 8-12 weeks for a sofa to be custom-made, it could be printed off overnight. The only delays might be waiting for the right printer material to be in stock, and the queue of things to be printed ahead of yours!

Print on demand: The move to an ‘on demand’ method of manufacture should mean that waste will go down – we won’t manufacture things unless they’re required. This will have massive implications for all sorts of industries – supply chain, warehousing, recycling and waste. It might get rid of the middle men.

Disposability: On the other hand, I’m guessing if objects become more freely available, cheaper, and easier to get, they might become much more disposable. Let’s hope we figure out how to recycle all that stuff!

Customisation: If my sofa is being printed just for me, there’s no reason that it can’t be customised to my personal requirements. Need it a little shorter or lower? No problem. Want different coloured piping and buttons? How about these feet? I will be able to customise the design to meet my specifications.

Intellectual property: with the value of manufacturing reduced, the real value will reside in the design template that the printer needs to follow - in the ‘pattern’ rather than in the build. Product designers and 3D modellers rejoice! You can already find templates on Thingiverse – it’s possible that we’ll start to see these charged for as 3D printing becomes less for the dedicated few, and more a way of life.

The value of handmade: Given that 3D printing could be applied to so much of what we buy, it’s possible that truly ‘factory-made’ objects will acquire a higher value, similar to ‘hand-made’ items today.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see how 3D printing revolutionises things!

By Kate Wooding, Strategist