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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The multi-dimensional 3D printing revolution

At @KeckGrad today, our graduate students are doing their year-end project presentations. In watching the presentation by mechanical engineering students gave me insight into how 3D printing is going to change entrepreneurship.

There are at least three different dimensions of how 3D printing is creating entrepreneurial opportunities. In each case, there are parallels between personal computers almost 40 years ago — and smartphones today — and how they gradually displaced mainframe computers. This is a classic Clay Christensen “disruptive innovation”.

Some of the emphasis on the impact of 3D printing has focused on the 3D printing companies. In fact, Scott Shane published a 2000 research paper on how a variety of companies licensed the original 3D printing technology from MIT. This has been the subject of news has also been on some of the larger and more successful 3D printer manufacturers, whether public companies such as Stratasys or 3D Systems or startups such as Shapeways.

A second opportunity — the one that captures the attention of the popular press — is the print-on-demand business.This nicely fits the mass customization vision of Silicon Valley marketing guru Regis McKenna and German innovation scholar Frank Piller. An example of this is Layer By Layer (@LayerByLayer3D) a company formed by Harvey Mudd students who are graduating next week, who proposed to custom-print iPhone cases.

An advantage of the 3D printing model is easier customization and lower setup costs. However, for now it’s slower and more expensive per unit, and has limitations in product reliability.

However, at the KGI presentation today, I saw a third category of opportunity. This seems like a much broader and more immediate application of 3D printing: changing the process of industrial design.

Among our Team Masters Projects, a team of KGI and Harvey Mudd students spent the academic year to create a mechanism for evenly coating seeds. As in previous projects, they used SolidWorks to design the mechanical components, and had some bent or machined metal components.

However, it became obvious to the team that the default prototype fabrication approach is the 3D printer. The students created two seed picking components that could be sized and shaped to fit whatever requirements they had. Once they had the design, they set the printer going and hard their part ready in the morning.

This reminds me of my first computer experience (pre-PC), when computing job turn-arounds took 10 minutes to several hours. To improve on batch computing, we eventually obtained timesharing — quick but expensive — and then desktop personal computing and handheld computing. Over time, as computing became quicker and cheaper, it allowed computing to permeate and enable every aspect of engineering, science, business and government.

So if 3D printing becomes cheap, ubiquitous and quick, what will that do to physical design? The marginal cost may not become as low as software products, but it will certainly close the gap and thus converge the innovation processes between physical and intangible goods.

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