3D printing will do to the manufacturing industry what Napster did to the music industry

The disruptive effects of 3D printing are only just beginning to have an impact – on manufacturers, big brands and the man on the street

3D printing is already making waves, but looking at the flimsy plastic confections spat out by current-gen home printers, it’s hard to imagine how it’ll change our lives.

What you have to bear in mind is that we’re in the “dot matrix” era of 3D printing; it’s at the same stage now that 2D printing was at in the early 80s. Some people owned expensive, low-resolution home printers, but the majority of people took their documents to the local print shop for a more professional polish.

So it is with 3D printing; if you want to make a plastic object, with visible lines showing where the layers of material have been laid down, you can buy a cheap printer from Maplin. If you want a ceramic object, or a metal one, or just a better-finished plastic one, you’ll need to go to a 3D printing service like Shapeways.

Metal gear? Solid.The technology’s only going to improve, though; the resolution of printed objects will become sharper, and the range of materials available wider. Patents on the laser sintering process that enable 3D printing of metal have expired this year; although we can’t expect to see home 3D printers using the process any time soon, it will almost certainly lead to a fall in the cost of 3D-printing metal objects.

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The disruptive effects of 3D printing are only just starting to make their presence felt. Although large companies are using the process for rapid prototyping, large-scale manufacturing has yet to become widespread. Down the line, it’ll lead to huge changes in the supply chain; manufacturers won’t need to store warehouses full of spare parts, as you’ll be able to print replacements on demand.

Multimillionaire car enthusiast Jay Leno does this already; he’s had a 3D scanner and 3D printer installed in his massive garage to produce spare parts for his classic motors.

Curated sharingManufacturers are already testing the waters in an effort to protect their brands from 3D printing. Hasbro has palled up with 3D print shop Shapeways to create the website Super Fan Art, which showcases fan-created designs for its My Little Pony toys. But those fans are a carefully curated group of designers who’ve had to seek Hasbro’s approval to appear in its official portal. Could we see 3D print-shops forming relationships with big brands, policing what people can and can’t print in future based on whether they’re infringing intellectual property? That’s certainly possible, but even that can only last as 3D print shops do.

We’re only in the very early stages of 3D printing, but when the technology moves into the home it’ll be much more difficult for companies to monitor what you’re printing. The disruptive effects of 3D printing are only just starting to make their presence felt, and there will be much more to come.