How 3-D Printing Will Turn Customers Into Competitors

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An important new fact will have a powerful effect on the economy of the future -- 3-D printing beats traditional manufacturing.

Traditional manufacturing depends on mass production, its economies of scale and low labor costs, all of which are barriers to entry for would-be competitors. 3-D printing, however, eliminates those barriers because a single machine can make an entire part or product, fully assembled.

As the technology advances, anyone will be able to make anything, thereby democratizing manufacturing.It is no more expensive, per part, to 3-D print one part versus a million parts. Every part can be customized, and it's not a problem to make highly complex parts. Because 3-D printing may eliminate the need for centralized mass production where labor costs are low, tens of thousands of small to medium sized 3-D printing fabricators will pop up all over the world, making customized parts and products regionally.

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Customers become competitors.

3-D printers can be used not just by traditional manufacturers, but also by their customers. This is happening today. A university in Australia used 3-D printing to repair hundreds of turbine blades used by a power generation company. Without the 3-D printing process, the blade manufacturer would have sold hundreds of new replacement blades to the customers.

The refurbished parts are as good as or better than the originals, and the process costs far less than buying a new part. This is great news for the part owner but terrifying for the blade manufacturer. By using 3-D printing to repair the blades, the customer no longer needs to buy new blades. The line between customer and manufacturer becomes blurred.

Then there is the story of Amos Dudley, a college student who used 3-D printing to make his own teeth aligners and strike fear into the orthodontics industry. Amid hard-fought patent litigation with the big dogs of teeth alignment, Clear Correct and Align Technology, over the technology underlying graduated teeth aligners, Dudley quietly did an end run, using equipment available at his college.

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First, he made a negative mold of his teeth with alginate and a 3-D printed impression tray. Then, he filled the mold with liquid Permastone, making a positive model of his teeth. The next step was to 3-D scan the model. He tweaked the scans, creating digital blueprints for 3-D printing graduated aligner molds. Each mold moves the teeth a little bit. Finally, he vacuum formed dental aligner material (which he found on eBay) over the 3-D printed molds, producing a series of clear, stepped aligners that perfectly fit his own teeth and wallet. He describes how he did it here.

Of course not everyone will become his own orthodontist, but the point is that 3-D printers are powerful technology allowing people – who would otherwise be customers for products like teeth aligners – to become manufacturers and make the things they need.

Companies must adapt or die.

Suppose a customer, or even the military, starts 3-D printing its own spare parts, rather than buying them from the original equipment manufacturer, or OEM. Some OEMs will adapt. They may start selling printable 3-D digital blueprints rather than making parts. They may become digital design companies and close their factories.

Other OEMs will not adapt, as Kodak failed to adapt to the digital imaging revolution. Some companies may be unable to adapt. In my book I use a fictional company, ZeframWD, a manufacturer of warp drives in the next century, to show how 3-D printing may force traditional manufacturing companies to adapt their business models.

IBM wrote in a 2013 3-D printing study that “For leading global companies to prosper in this new environment, radical change is essential.” Some companies will take full advantage of the implications of 3-D printing. Other companies will not be so lucky, and many are sleeping at the wheel. In the manufacturing climate of 3-D printing, they must adapt or die.

For example, the turbine blade manufacturer will be forced to adapt if most of its customers use 3-D printing to repair their blades, rather than buying new ones. It may find that licensing the digital blueprints for the blades beats making and selling them.

Related: The U.S. Army Is Testing 3-D Printed Drone Technology

Everything will happen.

3-D printing has generated a lot of hype. Some people say it is difficult to separate the hype from reality, but doing so is actually quite simple. Anything that sounds farfetched probably isn’t, but it will probably take longer to happen.