I’m a skeptic on 3D printing. In talking with a good friend a few weeks ago, the challenge was made, “Okay, I get it that you’re a skeptic. If you were managing that business, what would you do?” Challenge accepted – and the place to start, as with any new technology, is with Crossing the Chasm.
Moore’s Crossing the Chasm is the best guidebook for commercializing a new technology – it provides a robust template for understanding the path to whether or not a new concept can succeed, how to sell it and what to do. Moore is adamant that to get a technology into the mainstream, a beachhead market must be chosen and committed to.
The primary constraints currently in using a 3D printing application are; (i) it is easiest to produce a mono-material structure, where only a single base material is used to make the object, and (ii) materials used are easiest to work with if they can be thermo-formed. In a brain-storming session, several potential applications surfaced.
Build-A-Bear for Jewelry and Plastic Toys
Most current articles on 3D printing focus on tchotchkes and baubles – toys and sculptures that look cool and could not be made any other way. Rather than fight this trend, someone should take the opportunity to embrace it. Make a 3D printing business that goes into malls and is the equivalent of Build-a-Bear workshop, but instead produce custom action figures or jewelry. The business could be co-located with existing toy businesses, jewelers, or even in low-cost kiosks out in a mall main floor. Customers could come up, select their item and wait for it to be produced. Co-locating with a jeweler could even allow for the use of finishing equipment already on site.
Custom In-Body Medical Applications
Implantable medical devices must often be tailored for the recipient. A limited number of polymers, metals and other materials are safe for using in the body and the approval process for new materials with the FDA is lengthy. Create a high end 3D printing company that works with approved materials and is located in medical facilities that has base designs on hand that can be quickly and easily modified. Make it easy to enter new designs and/or modify current ones, such that components can be made quickly for incoming patients. Like all medical product strategies, there is the benefit of being high margin, with the risk of difficult regulatory approval processes. Perhaps pursuing areas like dentistry or pet needs quicker customer traction can occur while pursuing the larger mainstream medical market.
Moore argues that the chasm should be crossed with markets that already exist – and there is no current orbital manufacturing infrastructure, which makes this a bad template. However, the market is extremely intriguing. As interest in extra-terrestrial asteroid mining increases, the question becomes – what will you do with the asteroid? Most asteroids consist largely of stainless steel. Would landing a self-replicating robot, equipped with a 3D printer, allow us to shape an asteroid into any object we desire? This is clearly not a classic beachhead market, but the returns could be so large, that it is a concept worth considering – and one that may be closer to reality with 3D systems investment into asteroid mining concept business Planetary Resources.