On closer examination, the second idea seems pretty far-fetched too. The parts we seek to replace are often made to very high tolerances, of very specific materials, designed to withstand very particular forces and environments. You cannot just chuck a bit of random plastic in your vacuum cleaner and expect it to last 10 years. Which is not to say 3D printing will not impact on your life. It probably will. However, like every other technology, it will probably sneak round the side and do something unexpected.
It may well start in places where there is already a market for small, cheap, plastic things. That is why I have always suspected 3D printers will first hit the high street via a chain like Claire’s Accessories. 3D printing is probably brilliant for hair slides and brooches. In fact, one British supermarket is currently running a trial in a store. You can pop in there, get a scan done and order a ceramic figure of yourself which arrives a few weeks later. They are probably not doing kidneys just yet.
That is why two of the more interesting businesses in this area are not chasing 3D printing at home. They are using newly developed, but still non-domestic 3D printing techniques to create new product possibilities.
EXPLOITING A NICHE
The first is a business called MakieLab — a London start-up that is trying to integrate physical stuff and the Web. They let you design a 3D action doll like you might in an online game world, then you can order it and it is printed overnight. And they are gorgeous things — highly tuneable by you, you design the expression, you pick the accessories. They also have resolutely realistic body shapes, not at all Barbie-like, and that might be another important characteristic of 3D printing — people with ideas that do not match corporate mainstream orthodoxy get access to a manufacturing system. So it is not just the big toy companies that get to make toys.
Another 3D printing business called the Flexiscale Com is cleverly targeting people who already like small plastic things — railway modelers — and they have spotted an interesting opportunity. Right now, if you want to make a model train you have to pick from one of the relatively few models available from the big manufacturers, or, if you want something more obscure, you have to start from scratch. And of course, modelers are exactly the people who want something more obscure.
Flexiscale’s advantage is that they do not have to make thousands of copies of each kit and hope they will all sell. They will just print a new one for each order. And they can make a good business out of the slightly obscure.
So there is no need to worry — 3D printing is not about making guns. It is a cozier, nicer thing than that. It is about dolls and model trains. It is for hobbyists and makers.