The invention of moveable type printing by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1430s was one of the most important inventions in human history. Wikipedia says 'It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses'.

That is an astonishingly big claim. The on-going Levenson enquiry about press freedom is one example of the current impact of this invention.

I first saw a working 3D fax machine in the 1990s in the USA and have followed from afar the long developments in the field of 3D printing. At the Education Technology show, BETT, in Olympia in January I saw the first 3D printer aimed at the schools market.

Last year I saw an entire floor of a University engineering lab being kitted out with 3D printers.

The more I think about it, the more exciting the possibilities become. If I were in my 20s now, I think that this is one area which may have enough interest, scope and challenge to be a rewarding field of endeavour.

I am a practised sceptic when it comes to technological hype, ‘silver bullets’ and ‘killer apps’, but I can’t help feeling excited by the possibilities. What has convinced me is that developments of new materials have broadened the range of objects that might succumb in the long run to developments in 3D printing.

The ability to print a ‘crown’ in the dentists rather than wait for a two week turn around, or a patella for a knee op in an operating theatre may well be viable in the next few years. When I hear someone talk about going to a local car dealer, designing your car and having it printed out in the show room, I tend to think that that’s 30-50 years away.

What intrigues me is that each example of 3D capability offers the potential to disrupt entire global supply chains. For any good that could be sold by an ecommerce platform, the key for retailers probably lies in personalisation.

The ability to have a crockery set printed for granny with a design by the grandchildren is the kind of ‘value add’ that retailers and shopping malls may need to react to commoditisation through ecommerce.

A long time ago, a colleague who was an expert in retail logistics said to me that his field would be interesting unless and until ‘we find a way to packet switch physical goods’.

It feels to me that we might be seeing that come true. From a technologically deterministic position, the logic of 3D printing is that we end the global distribution of physical goods. Instead, raw materials and intermediate goods are distributed and manufactured and assembled close to use.

That’s an awfully lot of carbon footprint to save!

However, I’m not a determinist about technology. The tax regimes and the wonders of ‘transfer pricing’ may make a bigger impact on viability than the technology itself. Managing quality control in a highly distributed environment may be a bigger barrier than we suspect.

Certainly, in an era when government wishes to see a rebalancing of the economy, if 3D proves to be as disruptive as I think it may be, then we need to not compete with China, Thailand et al, on the current model, but invest in a disruptive space where the UK has comparative advantage.

When I’ve played thought experiments with 3D printing supply chains it seems to me that the ‘design hub’ for the product or service will be the high ground early in any generation of the technology. Of course, the UK is world class in design in many fields. Sir Jonathan Ive is an example in computing.

Perhaps if we think of R&D in terms of research, design and development, RD&D, then instead of competing on price and volume, 3D will offer a route to bespoke, value-added products, where the UK can be a leader.

If so, the economies of scale of many industries could potentially be undermined.

The last thing we need to do is to bring jobs back to the UK that vanish under the next generation of tech advances.

As I said earlier, this isn’t going to happen overnight. The technology is maturing in a number of fields with new possibilities on the horizon. Gutenberg would probably be amazed at what his invention created and that the consequences are still felt approaching 600 years later.

So, are you sceptical or a wild-enthusiast? Which ‘products’ will be impacted on what timescales?

What do you see as the barriers to releasing the potential of a new wave of printing advances?

Or will 3D printing become a niche, with hobbyists like citizens band radio hams in the 70s?

I’m looking forward to watching this evolve. It could be fun.

About the author

Chris Yapp is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.