Christmas came early for the KPMG Business Innovation team when our 3D printer arrived last year. We were like the Nintendo Kids tearing open their Christmas present – very excited.
Our goal was a humble one: let’s see what we can learn from an entry level 3D printer. But when we finally got the printer set up, the first print job, the Stanford bunny, did not go as smoothly as expected.
Much has been written about what 3D printing is and all the cool things that can now be 3D printed (for a good primer see this NewsRoom article, Print your world).
For many businesses, 2015 was the year in which 3D printing helped them increase their productivity or quality of output through rapid prototyping and design. In contrast to this, our experiences with our desktop printer shows the challenges for consumers that still remain with this technology.
So why have 3D printers not taken off for consumers? Like the adoption of any technology it basically comes down to cost, usability and a really useful application for the technology.
Cost is the least of these barriers. The 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas had more desktop 3D printers than ever, with new models at a fraction of the cost of 2 years ago and producing ever increasing quality output.
Useability is also improving but still has a way to go. The setup of our printer was not entirely straightforward, and this was a model that was praised in reviews for its useability. If this is the standard, then it will be a while before 3D printers are praised for ease of use in the way an iPhone is.
But the biggest barrier to 3D printing for many people is what can be printed. If you have CAD skills, the world is your oyster. For most people though they will have to rely on online marketplaces which allow you to download CAD files. A browse on these sites reveals a wide variety and rapidly growing list of items including replacement parts for cars, or a mount for your Go-Pro camera.
All it will take for these things to improve is time and uptake.
I predict 2016 will be the first year when many begin to more directly feel the effects of the 3D printing revolution as companies begin to print customised components for consumers. These range from ear buds for headphones to 3D printed midsoles for running shoes. There is also a well-established website Shapeways which is like an Etsy for 3D printed items. Whilst part of a broader mass customisation trend, for many this will be the year when 3D printing has a really visible effect on their daily lives.
So what about our new 3D printers? Customisable 3D print objects will allow us to create physical representations of abstract concepts. A tangible presentation that can sit on a desk rather than languish in the email inbox.
What have we learnt through our experimentation?
A hands-on experience of the 3D manufacturing process including the mental challenge of making it work is an incredible experience. It brings the manufacturing process into the home (or office) and makes it real.
People gain a far better understanding of the technology through watching a print in action. It is a real life safe to fail process.
And we can print Yoda…that really says it all.