A new industrial revolution will have us rely less on retailers and more on our own creativity to produce goods that suit our desires and needs.
From grabbing a hammer at Home Depot to picking up a new pair of Nike running shoes, we don’t tend to question a store’s ability to have access to products because the retail industry is designed to make us feel wholly dependent upon its existence. Relying heavily on shops to stock and sell the products that we need has led to a serious imbalance between consumers and retailers, just like a romantic relationship where one partner loves the other one more. However, 3D printing may be the way to correct that disparity and create a proportional sense of ownership and access. While the media latched onto the “dangerous” potential to 3D print weapons last year, that furor detracted from the overwhelming opportunities that the technology opens up for artists, consumers, and brands alike. Mainstream retailers like Staples have even begun to sell household 3D printers, and MakerBot has partnered with DonorsChoose.org to place a 3D printer in every school across America.
By enabling everyday people to produce their own goods in an efficient and streamlined way, 3D printing places power back into the hands of the consumer and paves the way for a more democratic manufacturing system. Instead of rushing out to the store, we can now print out a coffee mug if one breaks or print a nail if we need to hang a picture—all from the comfort of our own homes. Not only does 3D printing allow us to increase the flexibility of our lives, but it also lets us get the exact item that we need. For example, Sols Systems creates bespoke orthotics inserts that are 3D printed to fit each wearer perfectly, eliminating the need for tedious and expensive visits to the podiatrist.
Recently unveiled at start-up conference TechCrunch Disrupt, the Mink is a desktop printer that can produce makeup from an image or swatch. Budding makeup designers can choose a pigment from almost any platform—like Pinterest or even a photo shot on their phones—and the Mink will dye the makeup pot with the shade of your choosing. This could be especially helpful for people of color, since many beauty companies tend to focus on a limited range of Caucasian skin tones. Not only would users be able to print out a bespoke foundation from an image of their own faces, but the Mink also enables customers to cut their reliance on expensive drug store brands and to develop our own products at home.
Along with the immense potential for customization, another advantage to 3D printing our own products is that the pieces can never be truly “lost,” since the original files remain on our hard drives. Jewelry company American Pearl offers a 3D printing service to resurrect lost family heirlooms from generations past. A customer can send in a photo of his grandmother’s engagement ring, and American Pearl’s designers will cast the new version out of an initial 3D printed mold. Similarly, designer Janne Kyttanen created a 3D-printable collection of travel necessities that makes losing your luggage a thing of the past. The 3D print files feature a handbag, a dress, a pair of shoes, and even sunglasses – all designed to be printed once the traveler has reached their destination. Instead of stressing about checking bags, send your luggage via email on your next trip.
While many household 3D printers can only handle smaller projects, German studio BigRep has developed an open-source printer that can produce full-sized pieces of furniture. The BigRep ONE lets designers take on bigger projects without the multiple print-and-assemble cycles, and can also print mixtures of wood fibers and polymers for people with more conservative tastes. If you can’t afford the printer’s $39,000 price tag, MIT-based designers Marcelo Coelho and Skylar Tibbits have developed a folding method for printing large objects without being limited by the size of the printer bed. Hyperform creates long chain links with multidirectional notches so that each piece can be assembled after the printing has finished. While this method is still a prototype, it shows how everyday consumers will be able to create large chandeliers, for example, from compact household 3D printers.
With the ability to create almost any kind of product at home, 3D printing offers unparalleled access to items generally considered to only be available in stores. The technology doesn’t just allow us to print out goods on demand; 3D print files can be customized to fit any size body, room, or budget. The ability to personalize objects can also reduce the amount of waste we create, because people can produce exactly what they need and in exactly the right amount. 3D printing is well on its way to becoming a mainstream technology in our homes, and new projects and methods continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible.