Hello and welcome to the first of our new weekly columns here on the7stars blog.
First off, a little background to help you make sense of this week’s topic. My interest in the future probably stems back to the fact my favourite film of all time is Blade Runner – mainly because of Ridley Scott’s beautiful take on Philip K. Dick’s questions over what it means to be human – but that’s beside the point. I have seen the future and it may be very dark, but it was also oozing with cool.
With this in mind, and as one of the nominally “young” people at the agency, I’ve been seeking out trends that will shape customer and company behaviour in coming decades to our new business-team for the past three years. Unfortunately, the knowledge that Space Elevators are going to the next big thing in 50 years, or that electric cars with replaceable batteries are going to be big in Israel soon wasn’t overly helpful to winning new business (maybe not one of my more tangible trends – but it was topical). But it seemed a shame to waste all this knowledge, so I’ve decided to share my research with the wider world.
To kick things off, let’s look at one invention that has been steadily making bigger and bigger waves over the past couple of years – 3D printers.
3D printing does exactly what it suggests. It allows people to quickly print three-dimensional objects from data stored on a digital device. This technology has been around for years, with CAD (Computer Assisted Design) assisting architects and other designers in building prototypes and robots. However, over the last few years this technology has becoming quicker, smaller and ultimately more affordable and consumer orientated. Plastic is usually the preferred material for these creations, but 3D printers can use a variety of other materials, including stainless steel, Styrofoam, and even human tissue.
What does it all mean?
The biggest benefits of printing in 3D are, of course, less waiting around – but also, it allows us to rediscover the joy of solid objects in a digital world.
3D printing is already having an impact on some industries. Dentistry is one of the first professions where we are already beginning to see the benefits in action. For a few lucky patients, 3D printers create perfect replacement parts for broken teeth. This is far quicker than waiting for the parts to be manufactured to order and as a result saves patients days of waiting with the pain. The long-term goal here is to move this into other areas of medicine – replacement hips and other joints are probably the next on the goals list, but further down the line, could we see real life 6 million dollar men being printed into existence?! Perhaps.
As well as medicine, there are a huge number of other areas where we stand to benefit in the future from 3D printing. Here are my top predictions for 3D printers over the next five years:
Everyone has broken that vital little part on their washing machine / hoover / window that ends up costing £20 to replace and takes 3-5 weeks to arrive. Once 3D printers start hitting the mainstream, your local retailer will be able to print you a new part on the spot. Further down the line, customer services could even email you a link to “download” the replacement part there and then. Customers will then be able to print their part in their own home or take their download to their nearest print store. Expect a minor resurgence of repairing electrical goods, an industry that has hugely suffered over the past decade.
3D printers could also see benefits to retailers. As 3D printers become more sophisticated, they will reduce need for large stock rooms. The new-look Argos of the future might have a catalogue ten times the size, but will only need a warehouse a tenth of the size to house their 3D printers and materials.
Expect DRM (digital rights management) coding to be introduced to try and protect intellectual property rights for physical downloads. Also, expect these codes to be broken and the first wave of 3D pirates to start sharing them online – in fact 3D piracy is already here – Pirate Bay, the world’s most infamous BitTorrent site, recently launch a “Physibles” section.
On a more positive note, 3D printing could well spawn a new wave of art “prints” – downloadable sculptures from famous artists. Expect the first of this new breed of sculptures to pop-up in trendy magazines any day soon.And what about the possibilities for children? As a new generation of younger and even more computer-savy kids grow up, 3D printing will be used by children to design their own toys. Expect a crop of the smarter children’s goods manufacturers to start tapping into this market in the near future. Digital worlds will be transported on to the bedroom carpet. Could this see the end of Lego as we know it?