There is considerable hype around new technologies that are deemed to be disruptive, whether it is machine learning, blockchain or 3D printing.
It is not always easy to see through the hype and determine which technologies are truly transforming business models and what is hyperbole.
After all, the internet came with a substantial amount of hype and broken promises, but in the long run it has proven to be highly disruptive to many industries.
3D printing seems to be at the cusp of becoming either a force for change or a technology that will fizzle out as an expensive way to produce weirdly-shaped trinkets and cheap-looking toys.
Initially, 3D printing, also labelled with the somewhat joyless term of ‘additive manufacturing’, found application in prototyping: creating a rough model of what could be the next factory-built mass product.
But the range of applications is becoming increasingly wider, spanning the aeronautics, medical and construction industries.
On one hand, the trend seems to go bigger and bigger: from printing boats to entire suburbs. On the other hand, there is a vast array of small businesses and home printers creating puzzles, vases and sculptures.
What to make of all this?
One test to determine the potential of a new technology is to see whether it solves a problem that is hard to solve by more conventional methods.
I didn’t think I would see a sensible application of 3D printing coming through my door any time soon, unless my kids were assigned to a particularly ambitious craft teacher this year... But I was wrong
As such, I didn’t think I would see a sensible application of 3D printing coming through my door any time soon, unless my kids were assigned to a particularly ambitious craft teacher this year.
But I was wrong.
The first 3D printed object that made its way into my house at the end of last year was in the form of a simple hinge.
Not even a complete hinge, but part of a hinge.
I was brought up in a home that featured several metres of vinyl records along the walls and it was inevitable that I would inherit some of the collecting fever my parents were possessed by.
My record player is not of the audiophile type, but is nevertheless a trusty, nearly indestructible Technics model I’ve grown attached to over the many years since I picked it up in a local op shop. The only defect it’s had was that the acrylic dust cover was missing a plastic nose that sat in the hinge attached to the record player.
It broke off in a moment of carelessness, a common feature of record players of this age.
To get a secondhand dust cover, or newly produced replacement, would have been so shockingly expensive that buying a completely new, modern record player would have been a better option.
But then I found a blog, called Vinyl Engine, where one particular ingenious user, who went by the name of Lowlander2, had developed a solution that allowed you to screw a new nose on the dust cover in a way that made it look like it had always been there.
This German record enthusiast had spent some weeks developing, finetuning and testing his solution until it looked as close to a real Technics spare part as possible.
Once finished, he ordered several sets from a local 3D printing shop and started to ship it, at request, all over the world.
When I received my set, I was delighted. The parts were strong, looked good and were relatively easy to install. My trusty old record player has never looked better.
Daimler says 3D printing not only reduces production time and transport costs, but is also a more ecologically reasonable strategy since any waste material can be reused for more parts
This application of 3D printing to the creation of low-volume, highly customised spare parts seems to be getting increasingly more traction in several industries.
Aerospace has successfully made use of 3D printing in the production of rocket parts. In fact, Australian rocket manufacturer Gilmour Space Technologies has not only printed metal parts for its rockets, but also experimented with printing the very fuel that powers the rockets itself.
The printing of highly customised parts is now finding its way into the automotive industry and at the end of last year German company Daimler Trucks and Buses entered into a partnership with printer manufacturer Sintratec to develop Daimler’s own 3D printing centres for spare parts and individualised components. The company expects to roll out these centres later this year.
Daimler says 3D printing not only reduces production time and transport costs, but is also a more ecologically reasonable strategy since any waste material can be reused for more parts.
“The advantages of additive technologies, especially with regards to spare parts, are evident,” it says.
Maritime company Wilhelmsen has also realised the relevance to spare-part production and in December teamed up with Thyssenkrupp to apply 3D printing technology to the production of vessel components.
Seeing large companies like these throw their weight behind printing technology is significant and could have meaningful implications for not only the manufacturing, but also the logistics industries, and ultimately could impact on infrastructure and construction too as fewer trucks and container ships are needed for transporting all of these goods.
Will we see a wholesale change in the way products are made and distributed?
Time will tell.
In the meantime, I’m still recovering from the shock that this technology not only had such a useful, albeit niche, application, but also has actually made my record player better. It now has much stronger hinges than those originally provided and should be good for another few decades to come.
How many technologies are able to make a better version of what was already a good product?
[i3] Insights is the official educational bulletin of the Investment Innovation Institute [i3]. It covers major trends and innovations in institutional investing, providing independent and thought-provoking content about pension funds, insurance companies and sovereign wealth funds across the globe.