3D Printing and the End of Products

replicator

I’ve written before about emerging ideas being more about the end of something than the beginning. In this post I talked about most models of collaborative consumption being natural evolutions of business efficiency. Instead of collaborative consumption being a new paradigm in ownership many examples are just web technologies squeezing more value from existing industries.

3D printing could be seen in a similar light. We’ve seen product manufacture go from artisan craftsmanship, through the mass-production of the industrial revolution, to the ultimate efficiency of global division of labour. And in seeing that narrative arc it’s hard not to question whether 3D printing is in fact just the endpoint of a more familiar journey.

Supply chain is now the last obstacle for radical cost reduction. When you’ve found the cheapest places in the world to make your components the real fly in the ointment becomes the cost of moving everything around. And this is where 3D printing enters the fray. When everything can be produced in your own home and the only logistics considerations relate to digital files we reach the nirvana of no friction distribution.

So, surely this is a good thing? In many ways it is. The democratisation of production brings all sort of potential benefits. But there is another way of looking at it. One clear side-effect of centuries of efficiency gains is the decreasing value of objects themselves. Every commodity, from cars to food has become more disposable.

And 3D printing could usher in the ultimate era of disposable products. If anyone could produce anything what would the value of any of it be? More importantly, when we reach that point what will happen next?

If we see 3D printing as the end of something rather than the beginning then perhaps we can imagine moving on to something else. Perhaps this crunch point will allow us to finally complete the transition from objects to experiences and start to develop new models that circumvent product ownership entirely. This, along with properly evolved models of collaborative consumption (in the services market) might take us into a more sustainable future. As long as we can deal with the landfill on the way there.

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