Current consumption habits and accepted obsolescence are fundamentally problematic for the environment and as several studies suggest, our humanity itself. The Economist Intelligence Unit has noted that 80 percent of customers demand new consumption models including subscribing, leasing and sharing.
Since 3D fabricating a broad array of products will create a new industry, it is likely a new ‘economy’ could also emerge. If built in obsolescence becomes questionable, the need for distribution centres, and indeed their very nature, will change. Repair components would ‘exist,’ only in cyberspace until required. As a step this is not far beyond current manufacturers (71% of the top 100 manufacturers) using 3D printing, some for rapid prototyping and others for production or custom parts.
3D printed products sell the license, not the copy (or distribution), creating a whole new business model, notes Futurist Gerd Leonhard. Indeed, the repair economy could ultimately blend some industries together and alter models as high-end design becomes mass market. Ultimately, and on a global scale, billions of people are emerging as first-time consumers, and leapfrog tech in emerging economies could mean different consumer evolution there versus mature economies.
4D printing meanwhile could evolve into an interesting recycling concept. ‘The elements for creating a “cradle-to-cradle” economy are here (one where there is no ‘grave’ or throw-away of items.). It is the killer app for 3D printing,’ suggests one MIT Sloan paper.
Thanks in part to the nature of this killer app, and the removal of the need to manufacture globally, some experts have suggested that 50 percent of manufactured goods could be printed by 2050 (or even 2040 under some scenarios)[i].
This could wipe out almost one-quarter of world trade by 2060 (or two-fifths by 2040 under another scenario). For sure, the economics for 3D-printing-based mass manufacturing don’t yet work out and it is true that 3D-printing remains but one useful enabler to respond to customer needs and wants. However, the future direction and potential of 3D printing in simplifying some structural economic and environmental factors would seem set.