Until just last year the 3D printer seemed only a ‘how do they do it’ quirk, housed in factories and the territory of geeks. Yet suddenly its broad potential as a massive business disruptor is becoming clear, due in no small part to Chris Anderson’s 2012 book, Makers, exploring the technology and its implications. Cutting costs, shipping and time, astronauts in space able to print tools and parts, and bringing your own designs to life is only part of the story. The economics of China as the world’s factory could be changed drastically, putting production control back into the hands of entrepreneurs, small businesses and consumers with a desire to ‘make their own’, in their own backyards.
The scenario has quickly changed for the 3D printer user. Scaled down and available in a range of consumer-friendly coloured versions, Staples has just announced its ‘3D Systems Cube 3D Printer’. On sale for $1,299 a unit with accessories such as cartridges at $49.99, the product imagery is of colourful, banal objects such as plastic toys, vases, bracelets and a luminous plastic chess piece. This piece of kit sits firmly within the affordable iGadget generation. With its user-friendly design and branding, this approach makes it more accessible and more desirable. However, this light-hearted product positioning has recently been overshadowed. Last week Metro reported the chilling news that gunsmith Cody Wilson had released downloadable blueprints for 3D-printable handgun parts. So far the blueprint has been downloaded more than 100,000 times with versions of it shared across the internet. Wilson has now been ordered to take down the designs. Yet let’s not lose sight of the benefits of the 3D printer. In the short term it will allow businesses to be greener and will change the shape of the supply chain. But what of the future? The scene from sci-fi hit film Fifth Element comes to mind, where an entire life form is printed, from the nerves outwards. This is an incredibly exciting time. We just have to learn how to manage it responsibly.