There’s a lovely little line in Series 1 of Mad Men, that stylishly-told social history of 1960s USA. One executive had acquired a report that he didn’t want others to see, but later on he spots it in the office of a colleague. “Come on,” he accuses, “I know you took this from my office. It’s not as if someone’s got a magic machine that makes instant copies of documents.”
It’s a theatrical wink to the audience, so we can say to ourselves: Hey – these characters have no idea that office photocopiers are just around the corner!
It reminds us that companies at that time would employ dozens, sometimes hundreds, of people to manufacture multiple copies of documents by sitting at a typewriter all day. And of course, after transforming office life, photocopiers eventually moved into the home as well. Wrapped up in an affordable printer they allow individuals to personally manufacture copies of the documents they need.
We’re facing the start of a similar transition today, when it comes to personal manufacture of small objects.
Run out of paper clips? Need a spare part for the car? Want to design and make some jewellery? You can make pretty much anything on a 3D printer. Sketch the design using easy-to-learn software and then watch as the desk-top machine – printing with plastic or metal instead of ink – gradually builds your design, printing layer upon layer of material in the right shape and size to finish up with the object you wanted.
Increasing numbers of companies and entrepreneurs are using 3D printers to reduce risk and cost, and not just at the prototyping stage. In manufacturing it beats traditional methods on several levels: it allows for more complex shapes to be made as one piece, it uses less material, and the design can be repeatedly tweaked at no extra cost.
I’d love to have a 3D printer at home – the possibilities are endless! At the moment they tend to be the preserve of the private sector and some community-based manufacturing facilities such as the global network of ‘Fab Lab’ centres, but they’re heading fast towards home use as well. A small 3D printer costs less than a laser printer did in 1985 and they will become more affordable as the technology advances in the next few years. It’ll be party time for the many inventors and tinkerers that already spend time creating their own products at home.
It looks like we’re entering an era of mass customisation instead of mass production, and it’s not easy to predict what that will do the economy. Traditional manufacturing companies will be looking at lower volumes of routine manufacture of the usual items going on in their own factories, but that could be compensated for by any number of innovative business models. Co-creation with customers will become much more prevalent as companies’ ability to custom-design becomes so much greater. That opens the door to new ways of doing business, and it also means there will be a lot more imagination and variety going into the finished products that we’ll see all around us.