Please forgive my terrible ‘phone-photography (my camera is on a tripod for time-lapsing my tomatoes) but if you can’t make it out – above is a handful of 3d printed black PLA buttons. Common or garden variety – two hole, 2cm diameter – buttons. They’re not big, and they’re not clever – but they print in under 2 minutes and they don’t melt in the tumble-dryer (I’ve tested them – 3 times). I broke the top button on my favorite pair of combats recently, and it was a few days before my brain finally had that eureka moment! I designed and printed a replacement, sewed it on, all in the time one morning before leaving for work.
This is not a grand story of 3d printing – it’s no breakthrough development – it’s another grain of sand on the beach.
So far, it seems that my most successful need-design-print-use cycles have been for little things – things that aren’t earth shattering – things I could get elsewhere that may even be better made if I got them through the normal manufacturing channels. These buttons will win no beauty contests, for example, and they’re probably more expensive per button simply through materials merely because of the economies of scale that the giant Chinese factories take advantage of – but within 15 minutes of a breakage, I can have a replacement button (including design time).
It’s the increasing usefulness of 3d printers that seem to me to be the drip, drip, drip of inevitability - once it gets to the stage where people are coming around asking to 3d print something on their friend’s machine (much like some used to do the same with 2d printers, scanners, and even the internet) then even the people without a machine will be thinking about how their lives would be more convenient if they had one. A dozen little “If I had a 3d printer, I could print that….” thoughts every so often, and a 3d printer goes from being a ridiculous nerdy toy, to a Christmas gift to yourself.
I see that ultimately, 3d printers will bring us the best of both the online shopping world, and the bricks and mortar (as far as consumers are concerned) – the wide, almost paralyzing, choice of online shopping (for designs), but without the interminable delivery times, closer to the immediacy of walking into a shop and buying it there and then. I believe Amazon have this sort of thinking in the bag – they know that waiting for books, DVDs/Blurays and music to arrive is increasingly annoying in an ever impatient marketplace – and they have their Kindle, music store and downloadable TV and movies – taking advantage of that. Amazon started as a book store, and that’s what they know – branching out into every other possible marketplace has been a slower development, but they’re there. If Amazon developed their own for-cash ‘Thingiverse’ store – where you could download bought 3d files to their proprietary 3d printing software – they’d be in at the floor of cutting out the delivery man altogether.
There’s a ways to go first, of course – consumer-level 3d printers are varied, temperamental, rare and clumsy – but I could see a day when one of the delivery options for the gizmo, knicknack, tool or device, alongside Standard, Express and 2-Day Expediated will be ‘Self-Print’. Just need to hope that they don’t do a ‘Ticketmaster’ and charge you more for the convenience!