web analytics
post icon

3D printing versus Mass Production: Elves and 1% of everything

Many people have been talking lately of 3D printing versus Mass Production. The implication is that localized individualized production will supplant the current manufacturing paradigm with a third industrial revolution. We will all become manufacturers and make exactly what we want using 3D printing. Although I applaud such optimism and would postulate that 3D printing will bring about a third industrial revolution I don’t think it is “going to go down” in that way. Instead, I think 3D printing will develop in a more concentrated manner and focus on Bleeding edge consumers and 1% of all goods.  3D printing will not be used by “everyone to make anything” but rather be used by some to make the things they care about most. Furthermore, I believe that through this path 3D printing will come to slow down mass production and ameliorate the heavy burden that mass manufacturing is exacting on our planet.

The power of unique

To me the great potential of 3D printing is in its ability to create unique things that are exactly suited to their purpose. A titanium hip replacement made to your exact dimensions, a memento that exactly encapsulates a moment, a gift that sums up your love for someone, a better fitting golf glove.  All things made specifically to give the highest utility for you at that moment. You designed it, you styled it, you described it and you made it. Products created in this fashion will be immensely valuable to their creators and to others as well. By enabling the manufacturing of ideas, the 3D printing industry could anticipate on and respond to demand for any type of specific goods. I don’t believe that 3D printing will make manufacturing universal just as even something as basic as literacy is not universal even now. I also don’t think we’ll take the time to design and 3D print things we don’t care about. I do however anticipate that those most ambitious for the improvement of things will migrate to 3D printing.

Mary, who is most passionate about interior design will make her own lamp, her own expression of what she wants and needs. So when others turn to Mary on advice on how to procure the missing puzzle piece for their interiors, Mary will answer, “oh, then darlings, why don’t you just 3D print it?”

Likewise when uncle Bob approaches hip audiophile cousin Tommy to ask him which headphones to buy, Tommy will tell him that he must 3D print them in order to get the perfect headphone fit. Across the spectrum, the consumer experts in each field: fashion, consumer electronics, interior design, jewelry, automotive etc. all will migrate towards 3D printing. Because eventually the experts will want to assert their expertise by creating a bowl that’s better than all those boring bowls that you can already buy; or a lamp that is prettier than all those boring Ikea lamps. And why are Ikea lamps boring? Because everyone else already has them. This is the trap that successful mass production companies have they try in vain to stay ahead of an excitement curve. But, the spread of their products makes them less exciting because people can no longer differentiate themselves through those products. Iconic things that spread status  (iPhone) avoid this trap. But, this puts consumers that are looking for new things in a bind. 3D printing gives these expert consumers a way out.

Precisely because these experts that surround us seek expertise and perfection they will turn to perfecting their own experience first and foremost. You know that neighbor with the gold speaker cables? That is the kind of person I’m talking about. Once these people have migrated to 3D printing they will create a market for FabLabs, 3D printing services, home and office 3D printers, 3D modeling tools etc. This natural market will continue to propagate. Eventually the most informed and wealthy consumers will migrate to this market ensuring a momentous boost to the 3D printed economy and perhaps even self reliance. The people turning to 3D printing initially will be the “lighthouse”, avant garde, early adaptors/adopters; this thin sliver of the population that is always seeking better things. The people that have paid $1000 for DVD players and a $1000 for BluRay players when both came out. Lets call them the Bleeding edge consumers, always on the fore front of new trends. Perhaps they’re only a small percentage of the population and perhaps they would only consider using 3D printing for that one specific use case. Because of this lets conservatively estimate that people will turn to 3D printing in only 1% of products that are created.

Meanwhile Happy Meal Toys and cheap LCD TVs will still be made. Hermes bags will continue to be eye popping, in price at least. The storied, complex and cheap will survive. I will continue to buy bigger televisions and pay attention only to how much I pay per inch. Because this is the trap that mass production has set for itself. It has both over delivered and failed to deliver on two key points. These points are Manufacturing Complexity and Marketing Promise.

Manufacturing Complexity

The increase in the complexity of the cheap consumer products we can buy today is staggering. I can now buy a camera with 12.1 Megapixel, a 3 inch LCD and 3X digital zoom for $99 (I actually made this post a few months ago, now I can get a 5x optical, 4x digital and 20x combined zoom camera with optical image stabilizer 16.0 megapixel 1/2.3-inch CCD compact camera for $79)

If you read this post in a few months the same camera will have 14 megapixel, a few months later still it will have 20.  I can remember how crappy and expensive the first digital cameras were. But, this statement about the  12.1 MP camera will be made meaningless in months as the incredible level of competition in digital cameras results in leaps forward in price, software, mega pixel and above all complexity. In their hunger for higher resolution, Mass Production camera companies continually increase the amount of resources that they need to consume in order to achieve current revenues.  Indeed in my opinion the search for “higher resolution” in televisions, computers, computer games, consoles, phones and cameras is one of the single most environmentally destructive things we do as humans. It forces entire industries to have to make more complicated things that eat up more and more of the earth’s resources. And they only do this because we by now expect every new thing to have a higher resolution than the thing it replaces. More resolution translates into bigger storage and higher bandwidth usage and the knock on effects of higher resolution permeate industry. But, why exactly do I even want a higher resolution camera?

The Resolution Trap

I have a four year old Nikon D40. It has 6.9 Megapixel, an amount that should be appearing in camera phones soon. Over the past years Nikon has replaced my camera so often that I am currently unable to discover which camera in Nikon’s line up is its successor. I can understand that my camera is noticeably better than previous cameras. I can see how more zoom and software might help me in some situations in take better pictures, but the megapixels themselves? I fail to see how any increase in megapixel beyond my current camera could translate into better pictures for me.  Will seeing the pimples on my face really give me a better holiday snapshot? Because this is where we are currently with the resolution of our TVs and cameras. In my opinion there is just no higher utility in increased megapixel beyond this point. We have reached a point of megapixel saturation whereby any additional increase will only make you look uglier. Higher resolution will not turn us all into Cartier Bressons. The resolution trap is an example of mass production painting itself into a corner by increasing the level of manufacturing complexity to unsustainable levels while failing to deliver increased utility for consumers.

The Fern like global reaches of this supply chain and fierce competition between the players in it “make it so” that we get better digital cameras each season. Millions of people dig up the earth, pump oil, refine it, make it into plastic, make it into components, assemble it, assemble it into more complex parts, Ship to china, Ship to Indonesia, together with Ghanaian wood pulp, American chips, Taiwanese boards, Swedish design and a Japanese seal of approval.  This is the most staggeringly complex system that man has ever devised. Your mobile phone is a Gizeh Pyramid construction project with parts and materials from 10 countries and raw materials sourced from Australia to Saudi Arabia. Only this pyramid has to be cheaper and do more every few months.  You might think that you travel but I guarantee you, your camera has already logged more Frequent Flier miles than most ever will. The most well traveled thing in any American household is probably the laptop. The collective journey that  all of its constituent parts have undertaken in order to be reformed into your Asus or Dell is staggering. It is also clearly, unsustainable.

More Beautiful Landfill

Mass Production will only bring us a world where our landfill is ever more beautiful. We will just keep throwing away prettier, newer & more complex things at ever more accelerating rates. We will in fact be hoovering the world’s resources into a self defeating search for happiness through consumption. As marketing and disposable income spread around the world many more people will want and be able to buy mass manufactured goods. The current negative impact on our environment is already noticeable but is only being created by a small segment of the world’s population.

If we look at OECD statistics we can see the Domestic Material Consumption of the OECD countries (under Environment Material Resources). This is the sum total of all materials extracted and used in an economy from biomass and metals to construction materials. It excludes all exports. Per capita material consumption for the OECD countries is 17.9 tonnes. In 22 of the richest countries in the world  17.9 tonnes of stuff each year is used. Per person. Per year. Portugal, a country that saw great economic gains over the period 1980 to 2005 (the period the study covers) saw its per capita Domestic Material Consumption increase 118% over the period. Similar growth in developing nations would put an inordinate burden on our planet.

But, even without such increases the path mass production is on is clearly unsustainable. The OECD has 1.1 billion citizens and for every one turns 17,900 kilos of this earth into things each year. A passenger car such as the Toyota Corolla weighs 1270 kilo. Per person we use up 14 passenger cars worth of material per year.  Or to put it differently 11,933 1.5 Liter Coke bottles of material are extracted and turned into things every year for every one of the 1.1 billion citizens of the OECD countries.11,933 Coke bottles of this earth turned into tables and cameras for you, me and every one of the citizens of the OECD. Close your eyes and try to imagine 11,933 Coke bottles for a second. That is just one part of your environmental impact.

3D printing will combat this but it would be foolish to try to compete head on with such an established destructive system. Rather, 3D printing should seek to “hoover up” all those consumers that seek to create better and more perfect products and give them an outlet in 3D printing. This will slow the growth of Mass Production by diminishing some of the time and attention given it. It will also cause 3D printing to bloom while in Mass Production’s shadow.  The supreme irony of course is that it is precisely those most powering the unsustainable steam roller of Mass Production that will flock to 3D printing. Your neighbor, the one with the gold speaker cables, he has these giant beechwood sarcophagi  in his living room. They’re speakers and cost $5000. It is this kind of person that finances the expansion of mass production into ever more complex goods. So with each new convert 3D printing wins an extra person while Mass Production loses one of its most strident adherents and financiers.

3D printing will in fact slowly deflate the bubble that is Mass Production. Not deflate it entirely, mind you. Just make it stop growing and shrivel a bit, like a day old party balloon. And another irony, next to a search for perfection what other thing will most power consumers to become producers and move to the 3D printing camp? Disaffection with marketing.

Marketing Promise

The other culprit of the self defeating Mass Manufacturing revolution is Marketing Promise. Marketing was invented because factory owners worried that their high throughput, low unit cost factories would run out of paying customers for their products. They worried that once they had sold everyone two pairs of shoes they would go out of business. So marketeers began to create demand and sell these products with promises.  At first their promises were centered around the features of the products themselves but soon marketeers started promising ever more outlandish things completely unrelated to the product. Each new toothpaste was going to make you even more beautiful and even happier than the last. And because marketing is a big business now and the inundated herds seem oblivious to the most obvious messages; the promises marketing makes will only become more and more outlandish and more and more unrelated to the products. If they we’re just talking about increases in megapixel, the marketing folk would just talk about the products and the marketing message would be centered on the product.

But, they don’t do that. Its about lathering on layer after layer of imagined brand value on any product they can find. Its about getting the message out to as many people as is possible. As this imagined value, supported only by marketeers promises, piles on more and more costs are added to the product in a search for higher margins.  By now much of our lives are spent watching advertising and its becoming increasingly clear that even though there is a staggering increase in the sophistication and performance of many products these products are still falling short of the promises made in their marketing. Its incredible that we can go from 1 to 2 to 3 to 12 to 20 megapixel with falling prices in cameras. But, instead of lauding that, the camera manufacturers promise us better birthdays, more fun, more friends. Their lies and exaggerations will only increase in severity as time goes on. As they promise more, mass production has to work harder to increase functionality but with the marketing promising “happiness for $99″ mass production’s best efforts are doomed to fall short. A camera manufacturer is thus trapped into consuming more and more of the earth’s resources in a vain attempt to please a consumer with a better camera while that consumer is waiting for their promised happiness. We must fess up to the truth, a camera will never make us happy.

Everything you own sucks

There has been a widening credibility gap between the promises and what is being delivered for years now.  And even though some marketeers struggle with the underpinnings of their industry they also need to keep telling us lies.  They can not admit that they’ve been lying to us for so long. Also they’ve been obscuring an even darker deeper secret. That secret is that Mass Production is by design unable to give us the “best of anything.” Mass production can provide us with wonderfully complex things and cheap things but it can not give you the best shoe, camera or shirt. Mass production is bound to making millions or thousands of things for the largest identifiable group. They have to make things for many people for their model to be viable. This standardization means that by design everything you own is mediocre. Its meant for the many, not for you. All mass produced things suck. All mass produced things are in fact designed to suck. Conceived to appeal to the largest identifiable group they can not meet the precise needs of any one individual. They are OK for all and perfect for none. Once someone realizes this he will be on his way towards 3D printing, inexorably.  And who will these disaffected  people be? The early adapters/adopters, this Bleeding edge.

Cost Gap

Simultaneously mass produced good’s high margins  are narrowing the costs between mass produced things and 3D printed things. Even though the unit cost of 3D printed things is much higher, the increase in the specificity of the design and the corresponding higher utility of this design to its designer more than offsets this price difference. Furthermore, other things like limitations in materials will be waved away initially in light of the consumer seeing themselves as a pioneer. After all, these people aren’t just any consumers, these are the people that bought the first DVD players, the first BluRay players both for $1000 each. These Bleeding edge consumers have been continually exposed to the worst of the high promises, teething problems and failed initiatives. They’re a hardy lot. Once they have nestled itself in a comfortable nook of 3D printing the long drawn out deflating of Mass Production will really begin. Slowly much of the cutting edge will lose its shine and the creativity, innovation and effort will be directed to 3D printing. Mass production will continue to exist but not be a store of much new value and hopefully as the years go on its rapacious appetite for more and more of the world’s resources in name of higher resolution and other false dreams will diminish. Instead more value will be created in wish fulfillment.

3D printing is a wish fulfillment technology

At its most abstract 3D printing is a wish fulfillment technology, a Santa industry and all of us are its elves. But, in order for 3D printing to be able to equal the manufacturing capability of mass produced cameras would take many years and might never be possible. Better to hack and work with those technologies to use them as Lego blocks to build what you need, right now. Better to be the parasite on the planetary cancer that is mass production. Instead of a Santa that would truly let anyone make anything all the time at home with their own tools and printers it would be a selective Santa. For those who take their time and investigate it can make just the things that they need. For others it will be too much of a hassle. In this way a particular type of person will be attracted to 3D printing. This person will either be interested in the technology an sich or in the things people can make with this technology.

It is this small group perhaps numbering less than 100,000 today that is pushing the technology forward. These are the elves, the vanguard. They come to 3D printing to fulfill their own wishes but some are finding out that it is as a vehicle for another person’s wishes 3D printing can make money for them.  It is by understanding 3D printing and its constraints that elves can make money by anticipating the products and processes that will entice others to join the 3D printing camp.  These elves and the existing 1 billion dollar revenue Business to Business 3D printing industry will create both the demand and technology needed to fulfill these wishes while attempting to predict the wishes people will have.

In this manner 3D printing will bloom in mass production’s shadow. Meanwhile mass market 3D printing services and 3D printers will be launched and they will drag in more people. The fanfare will be focused on these projects but the real action will be the babbling brook of individuals deciding that they need perfection for that one thing. Gradually, slowly and surely mass production’s power users will amble over to 3D printing. The Engadget addicts, Apple fanboys, Wallpaper junkies, those most interested in better and best. It is they that will make 1% of all things with 3D printing. 1% of everything doesn’t sound like much. It seems a lot less exciting than “distributed manufacturing”. a superabundance of goods, a 3D printer on every desktop, everyone in the world making everything they want, tea earl grey, hot. I do however believe it to be a realistic estimation of the annual revenue of the entire 3D printing industry by 2020.  1% of the 17% of world GDP that is manufacturing would amount to a $100 billion a year market. Just a tiny sliver of that will go a long way to supporting a whole lot of elves and help defeat the rapacious bane of our world that is mass production.

But, wait a minute…

Is 3D printing even better for the environment? As a process 3D printing has several intrinsic advantages that make it more environmentally friendly than mass production. By producing close to the consumer less carbon is emitted. By using less material because it is an additive process we harm the earth less in creating things. By producing locally or in the home 3D printing could be coupled with a recyclebot that would offer closed loop recycling and cradle to cradle within the home. Tired of your plate? Toss it in the recyclebot and make a new one. Potentially fewer higher utility things could replace many mass produced ones.

But, 3D printing’s greatest environmental benefits lie in the way that it simplifies manufacturing. A camera supply chain comprises of thousands of individually motivated suppliers in many countries and it would be complex and difficult for a company to, even if it wanted to, audit and reduce its impact on the environment. Spot markets and tiered distributors obscure how camera parts are made and what impact individual parts, processes and their raw materials have. In mass production where investments in tooling, factories and processes will make less environmentally friendly production the norm for a long time regardless of technological advances. Locked into a low cost production paradigm mass production companies could also find themselves unwilling or unable to adopt newer greener technologies.

Compare this with a 3D printed part. This has one company making the central input: a 3D printing material.  If a strong and useful biodegradable material would emerge for one 3D printing process it could in one fell swoop make anything made with this process environmentally friendly. Without a plethora of suppliers pressure could be brought to 3D printer manufacturers and material manufacturers to make more environmentally friendly materials. It would be easier for them to comply since their own material supply chains are relatively very short. In this way any gains in materials would translate into huge efficiency gains for the entire 3D printing market. Even if the 3D printer manufacturers would not play ball, people could hack their own 3D printers to take newer and more environmentally friendly materials. Several material innovations could in this way transform 3D printing into a green process and with it make everything made with 3D printing environmentally sustainable. I don’t think a comparable innovation could happen within mass production. This is why I believe 3D printing is humanity’s hope.

Humanity’s hope

This is going to sound over the top. But, I’ve thought about this for a very long time and I mean it. The true potential of 3D printing is not in that it democratizes innovation, manufacturing and design. These factors will in their own right will have a significant impact on the world. A much bigger benefit of the technology is that it would indirectly or directly make all the world’s things better by accelerating and making more granular product development. But, the greatest potential the technology has is to let us have our cake and eat it to. With 3D printing we could, if the process became green, make everything we want in a sustainable way. We could give in to our cravings for new sunglasses and toys while not destroying the planet with our consumption. In the process we could use 3D printing to make better and better products rather than just trendier or newer ones. We would not have to consume less or give up the products we love but instead create what we want when we want it. In this way 3D printing could fulfill our wishes without filling our landfills.

  • Share/Bookmark


Leave a comment
  1. Ricardo
    03. Dec, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Insightful. This is the deepest and most balanced analysis that I’ve come across in ten years about 3D printing. As a designer I’m interested in the potential of this tech to bring to life millions of ideas everywhere. Several obstacles need to be addressed: interface issues (as long as STL remains the standard, this is only for ‘experts’), and probably more challenging, the lazy consumption culture needs to evolve into an active maker one. This may take a generation or two…

    • Joris Peels
      03. Dec, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Thank you so much for your compliments! And I agree completely. The biggest challenges are always in changes in behavior.

  2. Willy Simonsson
    03. Dec, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    Thank you, this is a great read! Inspiring and informative.

  3. Joris
    05. Dec, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    A previous version of this post appeared on the i.materialise blog by the way. There are some changes that reflect updates in my thinking.


  1. Sunday Reading | MELMAK BG - 02. Dec, 2012

    [...] 3D Printing vs. Mass Production [...]

Leave a Reply

Powered by WP Hashcash