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Techonomy: 3D printing and changes in manufacturing

One of the more fun roundtables at last week’s Techonomy conference over in Tucson, Arizona, dealt with 3D printing and changes in manufacturing. While much of the session was taken up by a couple of companies showing some of the interesting things that could be manufactured, I was most intrigued by Xerox PARC CEO Stephen Hoover's comments concerning the fact that 3D printing is just part of a larger trend that deals with democratising design and production. The idea of individuals being able to design what they specifically want and then fabricating it themselves, or having it made for them, is a very important trend.

Ping Fu, founder of 3D manufacturing company Geomagic, said the company has been working on 3D scanners and 3D printers for 15 years, so she called 3D manufacturing a "15-year overnight success." 3D printing goes beyond manufacturing to things like medicines and meat, she said, and this will be more important in the future.

Most people still don't know what 3D printing is, however, said Peter Weijmarshausen, founder of Shapeways, a marketplace for 3D printing which recently opened a factory in New York. "It's not at the top of the hype cycle yet," he said.

3D printing is gaining both in industry and for consumers, and Shapeways has made more than one million products this year. Next year, it plans to make two to three million.

During the panel, both Fu and Weijmarshausen brought a variety of examples.

Weijmarshausen's examples included interlocking cubes, a twisting puzzle (similar to a Rubik's cube), and an iPhone cover, explaining that now you can make things you couldn't before. 3D printing is now possible not only with plastic, but with metal.

Fu's examples were even more diverse: A prosthetic leg, a folding stool, and a guitar, another iPhone case, and shoes.

Fu talked about how multiple industries are being transformed by these concepts, such as the hearing aid industry, which in the course of the last two years has gone from completely traditional manufacturing to almost all 3D printing as each device is specifically built for an individual customer.

Going forward, Hoover said PARC is looking to move beyond the limitations of what you can print today. For instance, he said, the firm is working on ways of printing electronics and then letting you combine the electronics and mechanical elements together. This could result in libraries of components such as batteries, printed memory, and printed displays. The performance isn't as high as traditional electronics, but for many applications, you don't need that.

All of the panellists noted progress in working with multiple kinds of materials like plastics and metal alloys. Combining multiple materials is still much harder, they all admitted, but this is clearly something they think can be solved.

Summing up, Fu said that "all markets in the future will be niche markets" while Weijmarshausen said "the future of manufacturing is not making a lot of a few, but a few of a lot."

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.