Despite being a decades old technology, 3D printing is still very much in its infancy with mass adoption still likely to be some way off. The falling price of printers and materials, however, is making it a potential household appliance of the not-too-distant future.
3D printing, whereby printers build an object by layering its structure according to a digital file, is more than a gimmick. It is becoming a tool that can aid aeronautics, engineering, construction, recreation, decoration and health and is relevant to just about everyone.
Office supply chain Staples plans to open large city locations in Belgium and the Netherlands during the first quarter of this year, offering 3D printing to the masses. Staples Easy 3D will be the first example of a retailer adopting the technology to sell the service to the public and, if successful, is a model likely to be picked up by competitors, driving awareness and innovation.
At The Drum’s 4 Minute Warning conference Nick Constantinou, CEO of Collective London, brought along his agency’s own printer to demonstrate its capabilities, producing a small phone stand within 20 minutes. This was small beans compared with examples Constantinou highlighted in his presentation, such as a 3D human kidney produced by Doctor Anthony Atala using human tissue, and a titanium jaw printed and then implanted into an 83-year-old woman in the Netherlands.
NASA is also using 3D printers in space to allow astronauts to print off parts for spacecraft, while the makers of new Bond movie Skyfall printed off three replica Aston Martin DB5s for destruction during filming.
A promotion from Disney’s Hollywood Studios offers insight into the potential for brands too, by allowing customers to purchase a 3D replica of Han Solo’s carbon frozen casing from The Empire Strikes Back as part of its Star Wars Weekends, only with their own face printed on it instead. Girls have also been able to have their faces added to figurines based on classic Disney princess characters through a similar process involving a high resolution 3D facial scanner.
“With 3D printing people can now create customised products in a smaller volume that people want to buy,” explained Constantinou. “There’s a real opportunity for brands in that they will now have the ability to move into social manufacturing. Brands have the ability to print objects, engage with consumers in a home environment and get feedback very quickly and then print out another version. It’s going to be interesting to see which brands take that on and maybe utilise that in terms of gaining customer feedback in a real-time nature.”
Those possibilities, said Constantinou, are what we should really be thinking about, not the technology that offers them: “We need to forget the technology. People focus on technology too much; AR, QR, NFC – acronyms that come out left, right and centre. We need to focus on understanding human behaviour. Can we really get under the skin of how humans are living their lives, their behaviours, their wants, their needs? It’s only at that point that we can have a look at how the technology is evolving and the most useful ways to make a brand relevant and to make it useful to someone’s life.
“We must focus on enhancing existing behaviour rather than trying to change someone’s behaviour. If you try and change an existing behaviour, it’s very difficult. If you try and enhance existing behaviour then it gives you a good place to start. Facebook just tapped into an old age human behaviour called social activity and Nike Plus Fuelband helped people trying to exercise. There are endless examples of successful companies that try to enhance existing behaviour and it can be used by someone who is trying to do something already, rather than trying to change them. If you follow this approach, you have a greater chance of creating something that is genuinely valuable, used and shared.”
Human behaviour, however, invariably wants what it can’t or shouldn’t have, and 3D printing currently offers the opportunity for adopters to print off and create objects that infringe on the IP and copyright of major companies. This is an issue that has yet to be met with serious legislation, but many in the know believe such legislation will be introduced and enforced at some stage in the future as digital regulation develops.
Also speaking at 4 Minute Warning was Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, creative technologist for Goldsmiths University of London, who showed off some creations he had made in exploring the possibilities of 3D printing. He described these as ‘mixing’ in the same vein that Pop artists of the 60s or hip-hop artists alter existing work for their own purposes.
However, being a disruptive technology doesn’t exclude other technologies from disrupting the process of 3D printing, with the formation of 123D, a service allowing users to take multiple pictures of an object using a smartphone to then be turned into 3D models. Apparently, one of the favourite printing choices is the head of Star Wars Jedi Master Yoda after it featured in an online video explaining the printing process.
People have also been creating their own variants of Yoda by altering the digital files, including one as a plant pot and another with curly hair. This leads Fernandez to discuss the artistry of 3D printing, and how it has become creative, allowing people to play about with design. This also allows users to attempt to flout copyright, by altering design to make it unrecognisable, in order to print an object and defy restrictions.
Discussing an attempt to print a model of Mickey Mouse, Fernandez explained that in order to do so he simply had to alter the design to move the different pieces around to make it unrecognisably Mickey Mouse. He would then be able to piece it together properly, once he had received the printed pieces.
“Under terms and conditions, the technicians have been unfairly made some sort of qualified border control, where suddenly their jobs are to have this archive of culture in their heads where they have to recognise anything, and somehow be experts in copyright laws. But through remixing there are ways around it by splicing the Mickey Mouse into interlocking parts, like a jigsaw...That’s where remixing really becomes interesting. So while printing Yodas is illegal, printing derivatives is an interesting grey area.”
He added: “People are talking about digital rights management around 3D printing so that your file will only be able to be printed once – so you’ll have to buy a licence to print. But people find ways around it and will play around the technology.”
So where is this new form of piracy likely to lead? Both Constantinou and Fernandez agreed that it will be through the creation of an online ‘ecosystem’ similar to that of iTunes – a platform where printing files can be downloaded, and revenue fed back to the rights holder.
“There will be regulation that will come into play – eventually we will find a way of regulating it,” predicted Constantinou.
As disruptive technologies go, this one may have consequences on factories, e-commerce retailers such as Amazon, delivery companies such as FedEx, and online legislation as a whole. Expect the growth of 3D printing to become a problem many companies dread facing.