As descriptors go, ‘the next big thing’ is a rather common one in the world of tech. More often than not however, its use only serves to raise eyebrows as the supposed technological phenomenon to which it is attached fails to live up to the hype. On the flipside, there are some things that come along now and again that fully justify such a label.
Unless you have been living in a cave for the last year or so, it is nigh on impossible to have missed the mass attention that is currently being garnered by 3D printing. And whilst some of the most recent press has revolved around the discovery of 3D ‘gun parts’, it seems that the opportunities presented by the technology far outweigh the risks.
Not only has a significant price reduction made it more accessible to consumers, but businesses are starting to harness the power of 3D to their advantage in ways never before witnessed. Some of the leading pioneers of the technology are opening their doors to companies in the manufacturing and healthcare spaces, among others, and rewards are being reaped on both sides. From the engineering of human organs to the construction of ‘3D-printed houses’, it is clear this is not going to be a flash in the pan.
One person who would vouch for this is Eoin Lambkin, business development manager at DIY gadget brand Takker. The firm’s latest product, the Hard Wall Takker – a hand-powered ‘no nails’ device for wall-hanging – was prototyped with the aid of one of the more advanced models of 3D printer. Suffice to say, the access Takker has been granted to it has transformed the business in ways that would have been unimaginable ten years ago. “When we launched the original product, there was no 3D printing available,” Lambkin explains. “Our founder appeared on Dragon’s Den in the Republic of Ireland, got investment, but had spent years trying to design and develop the product and was paying for expensive prototyping.”
In layman’s terms, the previous way of doing things involved the use of a laser cutting tool, a process which leant itself to repeated efforts to perfect the final product and could often take a matter of weeks or months. However, provided one has sufficient experience in computer-aided design (CAD), a 3D-printed prototype can be produced in the space of a few hours in some instances, and a couple of days in others.
This had a significant bearing on the speed at which Takker has been able to get its product to market with over 2,000 customers purchasing it upon its QVC launch last month. And the fact that consumers and retailers only had the product’s 3D prototype upon which to base their purchase decision is testament to what the tech can achieve. “We convinced them to buy the product before it had even been manufactured,” says Lambkin. “We managed to take a concept to production in less than two years, whereas the previous product had taken six years for a single guy with a good idea to get into the market.”
Moreover though, much like the internet has connected businesses and suppliers from all corners of the globe, Lambkin believes 3D printing is doing something similar, albeit rather more exciting. “The new wave of business thinking is collaboration and 3D printing means you can bring together people disparately,” he comments. “I am here in Belfast but you have got guys in Kuala Lumpur and Sydney who can see the product at the same time as we would see it. You can all have the same thing printed in your part of the world, at a low cost, and then make a decision.”
The implications for start-ups and SMEs are palpable. “Prior to 3D printing, it was only people with access to resources, finance and engineering skills who could do it,” Lambkin adds. “What it has really done in some way is democratise product development. It has enabled a small business to potentially become global overnight.”
It would be short-sighted to trumpet the riches offered by 3D without touching on some of the reported dangers. Leaving aside the firearms debate, the legal implications of 3D printing along with the threats from increased consumer use have come under scrutiny. Yet, despite some concerns around issues of intellectual property, it seems that the same old rules still apply. “Design right has been around for a quite a long time,” says Kim Walker, partner at law firm Thomas Eggar. “This just puts it into a more immediate context because it is making it easier to copy.”
Similarly, whilst the lower end 3D printers are now hovering around the £1,000 mark – thus making them more affordable to larger swathes of the population – the publicised piracy risks to established fashion giants, for example, are somewhat wide of the mark for now. “At this point in time, a lot of those products will be printed from £100,000 or £200,000 printers so Joe Bloggs isn’t going to print a new set of Nike trainers any time soon,” says Matt Hopkinson, print specialist at IT firm LDD Group. “I don’t see it being nearly as much of a problem as, for example, piracy of DVDs and piracy of CDs.”
In this sense then, start-ups shouldn’t have too much to fear. If they are operating in a sector that stands to benefit from the 3D printing phenomenon, the temptation should be to jump straight in. “I am really pleased we are at the beginning of this,” says Lambkin. “It is a real game-changer. It entirely shifts the whole balance.”
So, almost twenty years after the 3D printer was first devised, it is now truly starting to work its magic. “The opportunities in a decade’s time and certainly for the next generation will be incredible,” concludes Hopkinson. “They will absolutely destroy any risks involved. Everything will be 3D-printed.”