3D printers are available to everyone with even a small budget. That means that even though what they produce may not be up to the quality level you would manufacture or sell yourself, the ability to directly control, modify, and create items is moving to consumers. And they are taking advantage of these small printers matched with predefined designs and low cost design services.
Will this trend replace the supply chain as we know it? Not immediately, and certainly not completely. Certainly the ability to print single quantities of custom or hard to find items on demand and inexpensively will take over some segment of the manufacturing and order delivery process in the short term. It’s the longer term impact of on-demand manufacturing that will have the biggest impact for manufacturers and retailers.
Copyrights are just now beginning to find their way into the distribution of 3D designs that can be easily copied and distributed online to any printer in the world. The law is likely to take some time to catch up with the tech since easy-to-use 3D design software makes changing a proprietary design a matter of point and click. Some IP owners will push for DMCA-like protection that embeds copy protection in distributed files and matches up with printers to enable pay per print and unalterable file formats. But because the printer market has exploded with so many DIY variants consumers are likely to create their own push back.
Production speed is still an issue because small printers take hours to print items. But as the technology evolves, print speed will increase to the point that low cost printers will be able to create small but viable quantities of products at reasonable prices. (Today's 'reasonable' price is $40k for this printer that prints in 15 minutes rather than hours.) This will be the stage that causes significant disruption in the order process. But not all disruption is bad.
Progressive manufactures will begin to realize the benefits of distributed manufacturing and produce select products at the point of sale, or even at the consumer’s home. Shipping those products will amount to delivering the printing materials to the printer location. And the product differentiator may end up being the proprietary print material rather than the specific design.
How do you see 3D printing becoming part of your business?