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14th June 2016.

3D printing is coming - and it'll reshape your business.

By Joel Sapiro, Major Accounts Director at Ethos. 

1984.Wham were top of the charts, Apple launched the first Macintosh and the first low-cost laser printer was released by HP. It single-handedly revolutionised the modern office, kick starting the desktop publishing boom. George Orwell didn’t predict that, did he?

Hard to imagine, but before the laser printer’s introduction, offices were dependent on expensive reprographic departments or external print agencies for even the most simple brochure or printed graph. The advent of the laser printer meant that anyone could print text and graphics directly from their computer (and at quality levels previously only attainable from commercial typesetting systems).

It was a wild democratisation of the means of production - and one that changed the way we do business and communicate forever. Suddenly empowered with the freedom to print quality documents on demand, businesses were freed in ways hitherto unimagined - a freedom we take completely for granted today as we use our desktop printers and MFDs.

The intervening thirty years have seen the print industry benefit from the emergence of many new technologies. But none since the first laser printer have promised to be as completely transformative as the latest technology on the block: 3D printing.  Chances are your office doesn’t have a 3D printer… yet. It’s been five years since the first commercial models arrived, but 3D printers are often still the preserve of creative agencies, who use these devices to ‘extrude’ (the technical term for 3D printing) plastic prototypes and models on demand.

But don’t let the limited applications of today’s 3D printers put you off – the applications for this new print technology will be tremendously broad and soon every business, big or small, and every home will be impacted by their adoption.

3D printing is essentially an adaptive process where a three dimensional object is ‘made flesh’ from a digital file, the virtual design is created in a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file using a 3D modelling program or using a 3D scanner that copies an existing object. The technology is developing at a highly rapid pace. Soon you’ll be able to download millions of 3D reference designs and print 3D products. Stationery equipment, customer orders and parts will be able to be printed both on demand and on premise, rather than need to be ordered in.

Print materials won’t be limited to plastics as they largely are today: soon we’ll see materials like nylons, gels and, perhaps even, food, get the 3D treatment. So, no more braving the English weather for a quick trip to Pret at lunchtime, in five years’ time you could download a sandwich design and print it in the office. Just remember to hold the 3D mayo!

Interestingly, unlike the 80’s laser print revolution which began in the industrial space before being made commercially available for the desktop, 3D printing has emerged over the last five years in small, portable units, capable of printing low quantities of small parts. But last month, printing giant HP created shock waves amongst the nascent industry by entering the field with the first industrial 3D print solution.

Claiming that their devices are both ten times faster and, crucially, ten times cheaper than conventional 3D printing technology, HP have also announced partnerships with Nike (‘printed’ personalised designer footwear - surely the stuff of fantasies for trainer fetishists the world over)  and Johnson & Johnson (printing personalised medical and healthcare devices). The implications of this brave new technology are huge. Just as the conventional printer changed the office space forever, 3D printing could change the world of commerce.

With the means of production firmly in the hands of the end-user, how will business adapt to the need to produce more ‘print templates’ than physical products? And how will they deal with the inevitable entrepreneurial hacks that will no doubt freely circulate on the internet? With such disruptive technology comes opportunity, of course. And those seeking to innovate, extend and service devices within the 3D printing world will no doubt already be planning.

Also, of vital consideration, are environmental and sociological concerns. The positive implications of drastically reducing the carbon footprint of mass manufacturing are self-evident. More concerning, however, are the ramifications for workforce: with every home and office potentially a sophisticated manufacturing centre, what will become of the millions of jobs intrinsically tied to the assembly industry?

Regardless of the challenges, however, one thing is for certain. Early adoption will be a must for any dynamic and adaptive business. After all, as a certain technology giant now making waves in 3D printing will testify, you don’t want to be left in the dust selling laptops when the rest of the sector is developing smartphones.

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