This The Economist cover story is the best article I’ve seen in the business press about the revolutionary impact of 3-D printing. Here’s the first paragraph if you want to get the Spark Notes version. But the rest is great too.
THE industrial revolution of the late 18th century made possible the mass production of goods, thereby creating economies of scale which changed the economy—and society—in ways that nobody could have imagined at the time. Now a new manufacturing technology has emerged which does the opposite. Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.
We see this every day at Daily Grommet. People who, until now, would have had no possible way to design and manufacture products, are doing it. This 3-D printing technology is a key enabler. It’s also a zero-waste technology, as opposed to most manufacturing which has great inherent waste–even up to 90% of the original source/raw material. And imagine the implications for medical technologies–everything from artificial limbs to dental implants.
Here’s the conclusion of the article, which touches on the benefits (and risks) for entrepreneurs:
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of additive manufacturing is that it lowers the cost of entry into the business of making things. Instead of finding the money to set up a factory or asking a mass-producer at home (or in another country) to make something for you, 3D printers will offer a cheaper, less risky route to the market. An entrepreneur could run off one or two samples with a 3D printer to see if his idea works. He could make a few more to see if they sell, and take in design changes that buyers ask for. If things go really well, he could scale up—with conventional mass production or an enormous 3D print run.
This suggests that success in manufacturing will depend less on scale and more on the quality of ideas. Brilliance alone, though, will not be enough. Good ideas can be copied even more rapidly with 3D printing, so battles over intellectual property may become even more intense. It will be easier for imitators as well as innovators to get goods to market fast. Competitive advantages may thus be shorter-lived than ever before. As with past industrial revolutions, the greatest beneficiaries may not be companies but their customers. But whoever gains most, revolution may not be too strong a word.