The Next Big Thing
A few weeks back, some friends and I were having drinks at the opening of a new bar here in Philadelphia. Over the course of several hours and several shots, I struck up conversation with a friend of friend who tagged along from the evening, a Boston-based lawyer who, it just so happened, works with businesses in the print and manufacturing industries.
Following the rare "you know what flexography is too?" revelation, we talked at length, inevitably coming to one of the only universal topics everyone in my generation discusses: how to get rich quick without really trying. (The other main topic is "Was our music as bad as today's music?") We talked about all the last revolutionary markets, like social media and smart phones, and I asked what he thought the next big thing would be.
"3-D printing," he said without a moment's hesitation.
I couldn't help but laugh. The technology has been around for over a decade: MIT filed a trademark for "3-D Printing" for a procedure it developed alongside 3D Systems in the '90s, which was based on rapid prototyping technologies used a decade prior. For as long as it's been around, the process has always been characterized as limited in scope, very expensive and, worst of all for industry, slow. A revolutionary Star Trek-esq marvel it was not.
When I asked him to elaborate he brushed it aside, saying only "trust me" and suggesting that, if I had money to invest, that I should put it in 3-D printing. I suggested he invest his money in buying me another round. We did not heed one another's advice.
That conversation took place on Friday, March 30. The following video was published on CNN on Saturday, March 31.
A week later, on April 6, MSNBC published a story on using 3-D printers to create shoes and fashion accessories. Then on April 9, a company released a personal 3-D printer that prints anything you want—in chocolate. 3D Systems, the same company that worked with MIT before, bought out a company producing web-based 3-D printing applications the following day. Every day since then it's been one story after another about 3-D printing: Hollywood adopting 3-D printing; Stratasys buys out rival 3-D printer Objet for $1.4 billion; 3-D printers create medication. It goes on and on.
The tide has turned on this technology. Yes, it's still slow, requiring a few hours per piece. Yes, it's still expensive, with home versions starting at $1,300. But it's not that slow, and it's not that expensive, and as those two factors become more marginalized and the technology more refined, it could truly spark a manufacturing revolution. Imagine creating a product prototype with a customer's logo embossed into the plastic as he sits in your office. It's not far off.
What could this mean for the promotional products industry? For the printing industry? Is it a game changer? That call is hard to make right now, but with how quickly things are moving and how much media attention it is generating, that lawyer may have been right: 3-D printing absolutely could be the next big thing.