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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Will 3D Printing Transform Shopping?

I just read an article in Space Daily (, 1/9/14) that gives a sense of perspective to the new technology of 3D custom printing (or additive manufacturing). The article in the Tech Space section is entitled, “3D Printing Poised to Shake Up Shopping.”

It points beyond the 3D “buzz” of the moment toward future implications for creating and distributing new products and replacement parts for existing products. In fact, it even envisions a future in which people will print what they need themselves rather than either going to a store or having online vendors ship products to them.

(As a disclaimer, keep in mind that if commercial printing has been traditionally viewed as creating a virtual world on paper—one that engages the reader with words and images—then in my view 3D printing just takes this one step further by populating the physical world with more three-dimensional products. Hence, it’s still custom printing.)

Suggested Uses for 3D Printing

3D printing may actually be more than just a new technology, according to the Space Daily article. It may actually change the way people think about things they want to own. Instead of buying a “thing” from a business, they may just acquire the product “specifications” or “blueprints” (length, height, depth, material, weight) and jet print their own. Gone would be the need for a “store” or a “distribution center” or “warehouse.” Self-reliance would replace dependence on a “supplier.” The conceptual existence of a “thing” as a set of specifications that can be bought and sold would take precedence over the “substance” or “physical existence” of the thing itself.

Here are some uses that “3D Printing Poised to Shake Up Shopping” suggests for 3D custom printing right now—uses that are in fact already happening.

Prototypes: If you’re short of cash but have a great idea for a product, you can bypass all the start-up costs (buildings, machinery, materials, and labor) and create a prototype yourself (printers of various qualities now range from $497.00 to $6,500.00). (Think back to the DVD players that once cost $1,000.00 but that you can now buy for $60.00. Even the high-end 3D printers will eventually come down in price.)

One-offs: If you live in Africa and you need a single prosthetic hand, you can produce one for a fraction of the usual cost (already done with a MakerBot printer).

Replacement parts: If your home appliances break and need new parts, why buy completely new appliances? (The Space Daily article quotes Andrew Boggeri of Full Spectrum Laser, who referenced “a study indicating that the average US home could save up to $2,000.00 annually by printing their own replacement for 27 commonly broken household items.”) According to the Space Daily article, people can just jet print appliance handles, ball bearings, and gears—or whatever.

Toys: Interestingly enough, the article proposes that “independent toymakers will be among those leading to making 3D printing mainstream.” (Download the digital specs and then use liquid plastic to jet print your kids’ toys. This works well for toymakers who don’t want to invest in buildings and machinery—see “prototypes” above.)

3D Printing Compared to iTunes

Not too many years ago, I used to go to the record store and pick out albums to buy. Later, I went to the music store and chose CDs. But when services like Napster, iTunes, and YouTube came into existence, the whole concept of recorded music changed. I didn’t need to buy a collection of songs in a specific order on a physical medium (a record or CD). I could select songs I liked, buy only what I wanted (not the extra songs on an album that I didn’t absolutely love), and then play the songs in any order. Or I could go to YouTube and see videos of the songs (granted, without owning them). It was a sea change in my approach to recorded music.

3D Printing Compared to the Desktop Publishing Revolution

The same thing happened when I worked in the graphic design field in the early 1980s. First I learned to set type on a Compugraphic and then a Mergenthaler dedicated typesetting machine. Then in 1987 the desktop revolution began. I could set type, do paste-up, draw illustrations, and enhance photos right at my desk. And then—not too many years later—instead of handing off physical mechanicals for the printer to photograph to produce negatives with which to burn printing plates, I could just upload a digital InDesign file for direct laser platesetting.

Again, it was a disruptive technology. In fact, it was so disruptive that some businesses thought they could just buy a Macintosh and have the secretary write, design, and print the in-house newsletter in her/his free time. Photoshop even went from being a noun to being a verb. (In response to a bad photo, someone would say, “Just Photoshop it,” as though a program could turn a snapshot into an award winning image.)

The respect of prior generations for the skills of the type compositor, graphic designer, and photographer dissolved as advertisements suggested you could save all this time and money and have one person (on one salary) do everything in-house.

But People Experience Inertia

Lest we get carried away, people do experience inertia. Most people do not want to change the way they do things. To be a “game changer,” a product must be of superior quality with an intriguing design (think Apple iPod). An experience must fill a deep-seated human need (think Starbucks’ “third place,” a venue for human contact that’s not the home or workspace). Or a technology must be revolutionary (think 3D printing—perhaps). For this, people will change their habits and/or pay a premium.

What Will It Take?

Based on my experience in graphic design during the desktop revolution, my assumption is that quality, ease of workflow, and cost will be the determining factors in whether and to what extent (and in what arenas) 3D printing will gain traction.

In graphic arts, people soon became aware that it took both technical understanding and design skill to create a good printed product. Those producing print books had to understand binding options. Those creating large format print signage had to understand everything from typography to marketing to the effect of environmental conditions on vinyl substrates and signage inks. Levels of skill were required, and this cost money.

Conversely, for a simple print newsletter, a secretary untrained in graphic design could use a template and type new text right into the InDesign document. Not every project had to be stellar. Good enough was good enough.

I think the same thing will happen with 3D custom printing. People will experiment with everything from printing body parts to printing gothic-looking rooms to printing hamburger meat to printing guns. Then some applications will appear to be ideal for the technology and others won’t.

As noted in the Space Daily article, I would agree that replacement parts, one-offs (like the prosthetic hand, the plans for which have been downloaded 55,000 times according to the article), and especially prototypes will thrive in the 3D printing niche. Beyond this, only the future will tell.

2 Responses to “Will 3D Printing Transform Shopping?”

  1. Ben says:

    I enjoyed this article. I’ve been trying to absorb knowledge recently about this topic and brainstorm ideas for gaining skills in 3D modeling and/or printing, & pondering what demand for those skills there will be. So it was a timely article for me, a 2D prepress technician.

    You mentioned an observation that I’ve also had: 3D printing is speeding past the part of tech evolution that, in comparison to graphic design or web design, offers a decent period of time where there are good paying, specialty fields necessary to create something. Graphic designers enjoyed decades of limelight for being the only path for getting something professional-looking created (before Adobe CS was available, mostly affordably, to everyone.) Web designers enjoyed a bountiful era of being the only way to make a web site (before WordPress, Weebly, and scores of other free web building sites.) 3D printing, however, seems to be going straight from the labs that developed the machines into people’s garages–print shop not required. And creating a file for a 3D printer has skipped past the years of needing exclusive, pricey modeling software (with well paid designers) and gone straight to free access of rather powerful apps like 123D Design, Tinkercad, and Sketchup for every kid or curious person (myself included) to step right into learning, experimenting, and printing.

    It’s this ultra fast evolution that makes me wonder where the money is going to go, job-wise. The designer, the prepress technician, the pressman, and the print shop itself can all be bypassed. So as I study what segment of 3D printing I could possibly learn and earn with, I wonder if those professional roles will be important and valued again over time.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comment.

      I think we are at a critical juncture regarding how we value (or devalue) skills and knowledge, and how we have used the Internet to create “The Cult of the Amateur” (to quote from Andrew Keen’s book title). Only time will determine the extent to which automation and the democratization of knowledge will change our economy, social matrix, and knowledge base.

      Keep reading the blog. It’s always exciting to receive such a thought-provoking comment.


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