3D printing may change the way we buy products

It has been a few years since I’ve been involved in the CAD (Computer aided design) space, but I recently visited Autodesk. While there, I was taken on a tour of their design gallery and shown a 3D printer. I’ve seen shows about 3D printing technology before, but had never seen an actual object printed in 3D. So what does this have to do with eCommerce? Perhaps a lot, as I’ll soon discuss.

3D printers can be used to create virtually any object directly from a computer aided design. An article about 3D printing and its potential impact by Michael Weinberg describes the technology thusly:

So what is 3D printing? Essentially, a 3D printer is a machine that can turn a blueprint into a physical object. Feed it a design for a wrench, and it produces a physical, working wrench. Scan a coffee mug with a 3D scanner, send the file to the printer, and produce thousands of identical mugs.

While even today there are a number of competing designs for 3D printers, most work in the same general way. Instead of taking a block of material and cutting away until it produces an object, a 3D printer actually builds the object up from tiny bits of material, layer by layer. Among other advantages, this allows a 3D printer to create structures that would be impossible if the designer needed to find a way to insert a cutting tool into a solid block of material. It also allows a 3D printer to form general-purpose material into a wide variety of diverse objects.

Because they create objects by building them up layer-by-layer, 3D printers can create objects with internal, movable parts. Instead of having to print individual parts and have a person assemble them, a 3D printer can print the object already assembled. Of course, a 3D printer can also print individual parts or replacement parts. In fact, some 3D printers can print a substantial number of their own parts, essentially allowing them to self-replicate.

Here are a few videos showing 3D printers in action.


Printing a Giant Wrench with a 3D Printer


ZCorp’s 3D Printer replicates a wrench


Print your own flute


Printing a bicycle with a 3D printer

Because of my involvement in the green industry and my background with using AutoCAD for landscape design, I was joking with the Autodesk employees about being able to print a flower or shrub in 3D. No, this isn’t possible yet, but apparently you can print with a variety of materials, including plastic, ceramics, and metal. They are experimenting with using human tissue as a printing material, thus being able to grow new body parts. If that is possible, printing a plant in 3D may just become reality.

So back to the question, what does all this have to do with ecommerce? We are already accustomed to many digital downloadable products from music to books. Certainly a manufacturer could create made to order products with this technology, but what if the price of a 3D printer drops to where they become as common as 2D printers (they are already surprisingly affordable at about $15-$19,000.) Then, you simply download a design, and print the product yourself! We all know what happened in the entertainment industry – it was easy to copy files and, as a result we did just that. What if you have a copyrighted design that is suddenly shared on the Internet? 3D printing will certainly change ecommerce as we know it since physical goods could essentially be downloaded.

What do you think? Will this help or hurt ecommerce?

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