I often have the urge to cut-and-paste an email I've written onto a blog post. Ideas mull around in my head, and it's often the case that an email chain prompts me to finally compose the thoughts that I've been meaning to get down for months.
This morning, I had cause to write a message regarding the questions I have about 3D printing, and managed to nail down a few points that I've been working through recently.
Note: I would be remiss not to mention the sources of much of my thinking:
- Nick Pinkston's January post, "Some Thoughts on Digital Manufacturing"
- Autodesk CEO Carl Bass' Wired piece, "An Insider’s View of the Myths and Truths of the 3-D Printing ‘Phenomenon’"
- Rakesh K. Sharma's June post, "3D Printing: Still A Long Way To Go?"
- This great Harvard School of Engineering & Applied Sciences article on "Printing Tiny Batteries."
- Personal conversations with Jordan Husney, Brad Dickason, Nick Foley, and others.
As a hardware product manager, I've sourced 3D printed parts (SLA, mostly) on a few occasions in order to prove out basic functionality. As a prototyping tool, it's been very useful to me (notwithstanding the value that inexpensive CNC prototyping shops like rapidmachining.com offer). As a manufacturing technology, though, I'm a little less impressed with 3D printing, especially because the industry seems most interested in replacing inexpensive injection molded consumer products with their FDM analogs. As SLS/SLA models become more cost effective and - more importantly - easier to procure, I suspect that the cost-benefit will shift, and I'll begin to see more 3D printed objects in my personal life.
But the model for producing those parts is far from settled, and I'm most interested in how the big players (I figure that Shapeways, Kinkos, and Amazon are probably best situated) will integrate the entire manufacturing process:
- Design (cf. Quirky; the current proliferation of hardware crowdfunding & acceleration programs)
- 3D printing (SLA/SLS, and *limited* FDM)
- Secondary operations (namely drilling/tapping)
- Assembly (monolithic consumer objects are boring; it'll only be once 3D printing is integrated with fasteners, wiring, electronics, etc. that it becomes really interesting)
- Distribution (ten days to ship a Shapeways model just isn't sustainable)
In short, I'm interested not in 3D printing itself, but in a new paradigm for product development, manufacturing, and distribution. My work background is in traditional manufacturing, where information systems tend to be closed and resistant to change, and I'm particularly interested in hearing people's opinions about how, over what timescale, and by what means these tendencies are likely to change.