Last week, I was in Spain with HP and much of the conversation was on how 3D printers were going to disrupt and revolutionize manufacturing. However, underneath all of the discussions was a growing concept that the factory itself, as these 3D printers advance and become more capable, would evolve into a huge and vastly more capable 3D printer. Except, rather than printing parts, these huge printers would print things like fully capable automobiles. Granted, we are likely a couple of decades out but talk about disruptive technology revolutions this could be a massive game changer because it anticipates a time when, rather than regional warehouses, Amazon might have regional mega printers.
Let’s talk about that this week.
Evolution of 3D Printers
Until recently, 3D printers were more of a science experiment than an actual tool. The parts, while physically representative, weren’t very robust or, if they were robust, they cost more than most other manufacturing methods. HP’s Jet Fusion printers changed that by producing parts that were about 1/10th the cost of aluminum, had similar strength, but came in around 1/10th the weight as well. Suddenly, we had 3D printers that could produce parts that were arguably better than traditionally produced parts and, rather than being more expensive, they were significantly less expensive.
These initial printers were followed by a new class that could also print parts in color so, when prototyping, they would look far closer to a mass-produced part. Next steps are to more affordably print in metal and print blended plastic and metal parts that could pass current and eventually contain ever more advanced circuits.
But, with all of that existing and anticipated advancement, we are still talking about a parts level solution.
The Factory as a Printer
In a way, factories have always been printers. They’ve just been highly manual ones. Raw and preassembled components come in through receiving, they are converted to finished products, and those products are shipped to resellers or customers for consumption. Much like printing presses evolved into printers without all the labor and complexity, factories have been evolving through robotics and now internal 3D printers to become increasingly automated and automatic.
However, once you start filling factories with 3D printers and linking them electronically into a solution, you increasingly have the potential of simply submitting your design in a machine-readable format, supplying the money for the build, and then waiting at the door of the factory for your product to arrive.
At some point, you could easily imagine picking out the unique accessories and finishes on a new car and then having that car printed for you in real time and delivered to your home by the car itself (assuming autonomous driving is successful).
These huge printers could also consume products that have ended their useful lives by breaking these products down into component parts, reusing what they could, and then shipping the rest out to other, largely automated facilities that would further break down and, when possible, ship the remainder out to other networked factories that could use it.
Wrapping Up: Anticipating the Birth of Mega Printers
As we advance 3D printers and populate factories, those factories will, I believe, begin to look more and more like huge, let’s call them, mega printers. Able to produce a variety of products and to be reconfigured in real time, many could be distributed, largely replacing or augmenting the regional warehouses that currently exist. The end result should be a far higher level of potential product customization, far faster time to market, and even an enhanced ability to more cheaply design and have built your own unique designs. When coupled with an artificial intelligence (AI), which likely would be a requirement given the complexity of the task, the AI could use its knowledge to refine and improve the product automatically. This means, in a couple of decades, you may be able to print your next TV, smartphone, or even car far more quickly than it is now manufactured and in a far more customized fashion than the industry allows today.
I was going to say I’ll look forward to being able to print my first car, but in the 10 to 20 years it takes to get us there, we’ll likely shift to self-car services, so I’ll likely have to print something else. Maybe my first printed personal robot?
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+