3D printing is everywhere in the media right now. In part two of a two part series, Senior Trends Consultant Richard Cope looks at whether it can crossover into the consumer space.

3D sceptics might like to know that printed parts are already upon us – within us to be more precise. According to studies from the University of Nottingham in the UK, no less than 5.5 million people have already been treated with 3D printed body parts or implants.

Science Museum - London

Science Museum – London

The University of Nottingham has been particularly pioneering, from designing affordable, printed prosthetic arms, to bilayered medicinal pills that promise a future of personalised, point-of-care treatments and ’20 tablets in one’. Elsewhere, we’re seeing the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine print replacement ears and noses from cells and ‘body friendly materials’, the University of Liverpool print prototype blood vessels and bladders – that may save on organ donor waiting times – and the University of Queensland design printed ‘skull scaffolds’ that help fill missing bone and help new bone tissue to grow over them before they eventually dissolve.

A New Dimension in Sustainability

Printers may eat up electricity but the very fact that they are additive – depositing layers of materials, as opposed to subtractive, as in sculpting – makes them less wasteful than machines in many other manufacturing processes. Factor in innovations like Filabot – a desktop system that recycles plastic waste (including 3D projects gone wrong) into filament for 3D printers – and you have a system that starts to look somewhat sustainable. As capabilities become more sophisticated and printers start to use materials like salt, wood pulp and clay, sourcing may become sustainable too.

iMakr store London

iMakr store London

So much for feeding printers. The question is, ’what can they feed us?’

Food and technology firms certainly have faith in the future potential of printed food, whether it is in the factory or the home. The Hershey Company has signed an exploratory development deal with 3D Systems, whilst Electrolux has designed a printer called the Atomium that claims to scan and recognise 2D images and render them in to 3D printed food. In Germany, Biozoon Food Innovations have pioneered a printer that creates ‘melt in the mouth’ creations aimed at elderly Dysphagia sufferers who have difficulty swallowing. Yet again we see how the needs of an ageing population may act as drivers for radical innovation. The one issue with 3D printed food at present is that it is some way from being ‘fast food’, failing to sate our appetite for on-demand convenience.

3D Futures

Where 3D undoubtedly scores is on meeting our clamour for customisation. Everyday seems to bring a new prototype in this regard, from Mink’s make-up printer, to Pensar Studios’ running shoe, printed to match the biometric contours of your foot.

Winsun Decoration Design Engineering Company, Shanghai

Winsun Decoration Design Engineering Company, Shanghai

Beyond cost, another obstacle to 3D printing is time, and the fact that that also equates to money. However, things may be about to improve on that front. We’re starting to see 3D concepts and initiatives that may save us time, as well as money: Dutch designer Janne Kyttanen has created luggage and travel accessory designs that can be e-mailed to – and printed at – a traveller’s destination, whilst in Shanghai, the Winsun Decoration Design Engineering Company has recently managed to build entire homes, printed from recycled construction waste in just 24 hours at a cost of just $5,000 per dwelling.

Costs still need to be trimmed in the consumer space, but as affordable home printers like the Peachy and SketchUp’s freely available 3D modelling tool hit the market – and crucially teach tomorrow’s designers – the sky, rather than the actual skyline, may be the limit for this next dimension in manufacturing.

This is an extract from Mintel’s new webinar Plastic People.

If you would like to know what these trends – and others – mean for your business please contact Richard to discuss our trend presentation, project and facilitation services. E-mail: rcope@mintel.com; Twitter @Richard_Mintel

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