After my daylong venture of exploring 3D printing in Hong Kong, I was a bit jaded about the opportunities for 3D printing. However, I kept an open mind to the fact that in theory 3D printing could completely change our industry. Right now most consumer products, including the products we manufacture in China are based upon a designer creating a design, then spending sometimes thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars on molds, producing the product, then a distributor gets the product to a retailer and then the consumer buys the product from a retailer. In theory 3D printing is a captivating idea, because it basically connects the designer directly with the consumer, and the consumer can just print out the design in the comfort of their home.
If 3D printing technology were more advanced you can probably think of thousands of scenarios where it would be applicable. Let’s say you lose pieces to your Scrabble set or Monopoly game. Instead of having to throw the game out and buy a new one, or waste your time finding and waiting for the piece by buying it on Ebay, you can simply just download the design and print it out from your 3D printer. Or lets say you are going to have a Chinese themed dinner party, and you don’t have chopsticks. Instead of running to Target, you could just print out the chopsticks on your printer.
In theory the idea is awesome. However, right now its a far way from being practical. First of all current 3D printers are too expensive. There are consumer models that go for between $600 to $6,000, but even $600 is expensive for a consumer product. Its also unlikely people will be willing to spend even $600 for something that produces quality that is not even up to the standard of an army man. Another limitation is that 3D printers only print in one type of material. There are 3D printers that print ceramics, there is even one can produces products by using reams of paper, there are metal 3D printers, and even 3D printers that print using chocolate and sugar. However, most useful products that we use everyday are composed of more than just one material. Even something simple like a shirt, is composed of a textile, plastic buttons, and maybe a metal zipper.
Although my company is not involved in electronics, I thought I’d go check out CES, especially since they had an entire section dedicated to 3D printing. And my friend had a booth at the CES trade show.
The only other two things that really impressed me at the CES show was driverless car technology and a product, which I guess you could call a very limited robot. Driverless cars will probably be the norm within 5 to 10 years, and the obvious benefit is that it will drastically reduce accidents. The scary thing is that driving is one of the last professions in the US where someone can make a decent living and not have a college education. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, truck drivers, all make decent money. However, with driverless technology millions of drivers are obviously going to be left obsolete. Its kind of scary.
The other technology which is a bit of a novelty but I thought was cool are the robot looking things pictured below. The one machine directly below retails for around $2,500 and the more robust looking one beneath that goes for around $20,000. The idea is that you can work from a remote location, and roam around the office. It allows you to see and hear everything around you, and people can also listen to you and see your face. So I could work from the US, and I could put one of these devices in our China office, one in the factory and another in our Philippines office. I could see what was going on in each office, and I could hold meetings with staff. At $20,000 I think its a bit impractical, but at $2,500 I don’t think the idea is crazy, and I’m sure the price will come down to $1,000 in a few years, which kind of turns it into a “why not buy one” type of product.