It seems like 2013 is gearing up to be the year of 3-D printing among the tech set. Let’s spend a few minutes looking at this technology — also known as "additive manufacturing" — and what sort of impact it might have.
3-D printing technology enables you to make a physical object out of plastic from a computer file. It is to industrial design what the ink jet printer is to graphic design.
So, in the same way that you might use an ink jet printer to print off a couple of brochures or sell sheets or other business collateral, you might use a 3-D printer to "print" off an object — a keychain fob, an action figure, a spare plastic part for something, and so on.
First off, let’s be very clear and honest: 3-D printing is extremely cool, but it’s also a long way from mainstream. There are significant constraints on what this technology can do today.
The printers build up objects a layer at a time, which are limited in size and also in complexity or "resolution." The resulting objects are prone to deformities and defects, and will often require some degree of hand finishing to be considered of decent quality.
But in the same way that the capabilities of desktop printers have advanced radically, I suspect that 3-D printing will also improve rapidly should a market become apparent. What we see today with hobbyist 3-D printing will morph into something more polished and useful over time.
Let’s examine the technology in terms of time frame.
3-D printing today
If you were to go out and get a popular 3-D printer like the Makerbot today, what could you do with it? How would you integrate it into your business practice?
The first question to ask is whether you’d even want to. These things pump out physical objects. If you don’t require physical objects to make money, then it probably won’t be a huge help for your business.
On the other hand, if you can envision a time that being able to make custom physical objects will be a differentiator for your practice, then getting started today and learning how the technology works might be time well spent.
Today’s 3-D printer needs to be in a place where it will be level and not vibrate — a heavy workbench, for example. You’ll also have to learn a little bit about 3-D design software. Along the way you’ll learn where repositories of 3-D object files can be found online. You’ll establish social connections in a very niche tech/design subculture.
For this investment in space, materials, time and social capital, you will receive the ability to make small objects one at a time.
You could make keychain fobs or decorative magnets for marketing, although you’d have to insert the actual magnet part on your own. But the cost would be much higher than doing a commercial run of these sorts of things.
On the other hand, you could make them each unique and personalized for your customers. Maybe a keychain fob that is a little plastic version of the actual house someone purchased, for example.
I suspect that it will be a challenge to make a keychain fob seem like a unique and valuable part of a highly personalized and excellent customer experience. I also suspect that someone out there will be able to do it.
Probably, like all of the great digital technologies in real estate, it will be done by someone who already has a personal interest and passion for the technology.
3-D printing in the not-so-distant future
Eventually, the size and resolution of the objects that can be made with 3-D printing will increase. This will increase the variety of objects you can make and the perceived quality of the objects as well. Think of the switch from VHS camcorders to the HD camera in your phone that has occurred over the past 10 years.
By the time this occurs, I suspect there will be readily identifiable 3-D print-object designers and recognized places to download "ready-to-print" objects. The unique cachet that personalized print-objects hold today will diminish as they become commonplace. It will be like the novelty of seeing an email address on a business card.
To use 3-D printers that are larger and have better resolution, you will likely need a larger space for the printer, and a larger and probably even less wiggly surface upon which to mount it. The budget for failed objects will likely increase, because each failed object will require more material.
In return for these investments of time and resources, you’ll be able to make things that are larger — perhaps larger business collateral items. But as noted, the novelty of this sort of thing will wear off.
So perhaps you pursue more useful things. Maybe you’ll print a scale printout of a floor plan complete with movable furniture scanned in from a potential buyer’s own furniture collection.
Again, it may seem a challenge to identify what sort of useful objects could be made — especially as we are in the throes of "going paperless" and "going digital."
But I am confident that someone out there reading this column will identify, design and begin making a difference for their customers through the creation of personalized, useful objects made one at a time, on demand.