In my second post about the future of 3D printing I ended with this question. It is a valid question to ask I think. Most technologies start out as very specialized and very expensive niche products and become mainstream after a decade or so. Computers, air conditioning and microwaves all started out as business technologies and are now standard household equipment.
First of all it is about content. The digitization of product design helps to bring content in the digital domain. Just take a look at the website of Shapeways (disclosure: I work there) or Thingiverse and you can see that there is a tremendous amount of content available already. The availability of content is accelerating. But here we are talking about unique designs. Just imagine when spare parts or add ons become available as downloadable and printable content. You buy a standard off-the-shelf product but need a small customization to fit your own needs. Just imagine a standard light switch for your home and custom cover. Or maybe the cover you want is out of production and you make your own based on the original design.
Or you break the battery cover of your remote control. You download a replacement from the manufacturer’s website and a little bit later you have your brand new battery cover in your hand.
Secondly it is about availability. 3D printing is instantaneous albeit the machines are currently still slow. No need to wait for UPS or Fedex. Just push the button and the product becomes materialized before your eyes.
And third it is about cost. To actually produce something in China based on a design created in the USA and ship it over to the distributor who brings it the shop owner’s warehouse who ships it to one of his stores is expensive. Next to that shop owners have more costs like their store rent and personnel cost. For this reason a $2 product is sold $40 at your local store.
Most people are not 3D designers or aspire to be one. There will be a great revival of making your own stuff. And that is already happening. Just take a look at one of the Maker Faires and you see what I mean. But I do see a lot of need customize and personalize products to your own requirements. Think about changes in size or color but also in form and function. But to actually design your own products is quite some work. And then you always have this nagging feeling if it is fit for purpose. That is actually something more for hobbyists and professionals who would like to put in the time and love in designing products.
3D printing at home is already a reality using printers like Makerbot or Up. They are even quite affordable but their usage it is still very limited because the limited abilities of the printers and the low quality of the prints. They are hobbyist printers. Of course we need to start somewhere. These printers are definitely not ready for mass adoption yet. The same applies for content which is not there yet either. Companies need to adapt and rethink their business models. Lucky for them they have another decade or two.