Common Sense Journalism

Why you should pay attention to 3-D printing

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The curiosity factor of 3-D printing has soared lately with videos of a working gun made using one of the printers. The curiosity will fade – for a while, at least – but smart media managers will keep tracking the technology's progress because it could be one of your next big business disruptors.

It's not as likely to be a direct disruptor as many other digital technologies of the past 15 years have been. But it will disrupt the business of some of your major advertisers.

The idea of "printing" three-dimensional objects is no longer a dream or even an expensive prototype. It is likely to be an accepted consumer technology within a decade.

Doctors already use 3-D printing to make replacement body parts. Formula One racing teams use it to make car parts. The federal government is putting $30 million into creating a manufacturing hub in Youngstown, Ohio.

For $99, a South Carolina company is putting kiosks at malls where you can turn your or your children's drawings into a 3-D model. Keychains and charms are also in the works, according to The State newspaper. The Center for Digital Education says the University of California-Berkeley now has a 3-D print vending machine. And a consumer-level printer can be had for about $1,300 (see cubify.com/cube for an example).

The digital age is ruthless in cutting out middlemen, as media companies are learning. And many of your advertisers are retailers, the epitome of middlemen. Let's take a walk down the aisle:

  • Need a new kitchen utensil in that special color, or need some new cups? Print them.
  • Need some special shoes for that date? How about a necklace in just the right color? Print them.
  • Want an iPhone case with purple sparkles today? Print it. Want one in bright yellow next week? Print it.
  • Need to replace that taillight you smashed? Print it.

Spend some time at some of your biggest advertisers and note the surprising number of things they sell, especially in our plastic society, that could be digitized. And if something can be digitized, it can be customized – and that makes it a candidate for 3-D printing.

The economic logic for manufacturers eventually will become enticing.

I recently bought one of those single-serve coffee machines and, for about $10 more, a plastic insert to use your own coffee. Let's say the manufacturer charged the retailer $5 for that insert – that's a $5 profit, and those kinds of markups on the small things that sell in volume help make retailers profitable. But what if the manufacturer said why split this – let's charge $6 for the digitized 3-D file. The manufacturer's profit goes up 20 percent, the retailer gets nothing and I get a 40 percent savings and the convenience of not having to go to the store.

Think about the impact on your local car dealers and auto parts stores if Detroit decides it's more profitable to start selling replacement parts via digital files for printing.

There are still cost and technology issues before there's a printer in every home and business. But haven't we learned that betting against technology these days is not a winning strategy?

Just as journalism is moving from a manufacturing enterprise to a service, many other parts of manufacturing will as well.

Don't get caught flat-footed.

Monitor what is happening so you know when things are beginning to change in your market. Identify new business opportunities and new potential advertisers, like the South Carolina memento-maker. You know that "service" businesses can be be less robust and higher-maintenance advertisers than traditional retailers, so as manufacturing becomes more of a service, be prepared to adjust.

You've got some lead time, though not as much as you may think. So, above all, this time let's not come late to the party.

Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at dfisher@sc.edu or (803) 777-3315. Past issues of Common Sense Journalism can be found at http://www.jour.sc.edu/news/csj/index.html.

Fisher

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