3D printing, the process by which three-dimensional objects are created through successive layers of computer-generated material following specifications of a digital 3D model, is set to become an economical and sustainable alternative to traditional manufacturing and production in a retail environment. The concept of 3D printing has been continuously in development since the 1970s, but at that time, 3D printing machinery was much too bulky and expensive to be put into common practice. As time has passed, 3D printers have become more and more sophisticated, and since 2010, the price of 3D printers for business or home use has been becoming increasingly affordable. A desktop 3D printer can be purchased for as low as $400.00.
Retail and Manufacturing Industries vs. 3D Printing
Traditionally, retail and manufacturing industries have relied on large factories, huge machines, and a trained work force to create the products and materials they needed. Vast amounts of time, money and natural or synthetic resources have been required for supply to keep up with demand. One product or part would require several types of materials, which would mean the object would go through multiple machines before it was finished, which required a lot of energy consumption.
3D printing eliminates the need for factories, factory workers, machines, and excessive energy consumption. One 3D printer can create a wide variety of products and parts, built to any scale its digital 3D model dictates and using only the minimum amount of resources necessary. 3D printers can create objects made out of a variety of materials, including but not limited to silicone, rubber, thermoplastics, metal, porcelain, and plaster. 3D printers have already proven successful in creating such products as shoes, cell phone cases, jewelry, clothing, bicycles, housewares, food, prosthetics, and much more.
The Impact of 3D Printing
3D printing will change not only the way retail products are made, but also how they are marketed and sold. Customers will be able to create a 3D model of the product they want, and then send it to a company online, after which the company will print it with their 3D printer and mail it to the customer. 3D printing makes products highly customizable, because any modifications can be made to the digital 3D model itself without needing to change the 3D printer. Some companies, such as Staples, are already offering in-store 3D printing to customers. As of yet, not many people will have open-source 3D printers in their homes unless they are hobbyists who have particular experience with DIY and design, but the time may come very soon that the general public will learn how to use 3D printers to create products to satisfy their everyday needs.
3D printing will have a positive impact on the manufacturing industry by using the minimum amount of energy and materials to make parts for cars, airplanes, and other machinery, which means not only saving money but having cars and airplanes that perform better. Mechanical engineers can create prototypes of parts that they can physically hold in their hands with desktop 3D printers, and when the best prototype is determined, its 3D model can be sent to be created by a larger and more powerful 3D printer onsite for use in the final product, which eliminates the energy consumption of a part needing to be shipped to a company by mail, truck, plane or boat.
Because it can save so much time, money and resources, 3D printing is bound to make competition between the U.S. and other manufacturing giants like China, India and Japan fiercer than ever. 3D printing will thoroughly revolutionize the way products are marketed, created and distributed, which promises fascinating developments as the world becomes familiarized with this emerging technology.