I’ve been fortunate enough to spend extended periods of time in the USA on research leave and exchanges. In each case we have gained enormously from the experiences in so many ways. We have also gained in more functional ways. From our period at Florida State, I realised that however much I did not want to pay more for TV, if I wanted sport and films I would have to add to my then 5 TV channels. And from Tennessee we discovered home bread making and on arriving back bought a machine which has been in almost constant use since.
Anyhow, after seven years of use, one part of the bread maker has broken. It still works well in basic mode but if I want to get clever with bread then I can’t. After investigation it became clear that a small part had snapped and all would be well if I could replace it. And that’s where the fun started!
Panasonic don’t make the replacement part so you can’t simply buy one from them or anyone else it seems. Web trawling produced no resellers. And then I stumbled across Shapeways – a 3D printing marketplace. And buried on their site is the opportunity to have the errant Panasonic part produced on demand in their 3D production factory. So I did, and it arrived and works. Bread creativity is restored. My only gripe would be the excessive packaging used in transit which makes Amazon looks positively parsimonious on cardboard and plastic.
So one happy customer. Given that the only other time 3D printing had registered with me was the news story a few months ago about 3D printing your own gun, I had thought that 3D printing was a fad or a gimmick. Now I am not so sure.
And in thinking about it, I came across the story in Retail Week from early July which asked exactly that question – is 3D printing the latest technological fad? In reading that article I was struck with some parallels with RFiD – 3D printing is not a new technology, it has had to wait for miniaturization, costs reductions in materials, and some people with real problems to solve. Maybe it will follow the same trajectory – hype, disillusion and then realism over its value.
But Shapeways – and the part designer – have solved my problem. They’ve produced a (almost) one-off for me, with the potential to reproduce it for others who need the same part (in fact I was the follower here) on demand. This is actually really interesting in a number of ways and must have real potential.
Whilst 3D printers will be in shops this Christmas, they are not this year’s tablet. They are far more complex and complicated than that, but for some they might be the step into creativity and production. Looking round the Shapeways site you see one-off designers, mad products, unique designs and other customer opportunities. There is something here about this technology and its retail potential, and it will be fascinating to see where this goes.
If all else fails for Christmas of course, you could go along to the Selfridges pop-up shop which is going to offer 3D printed miniature figures. Ten seconds to be body scanned and then a few days later a unique model can be ready to give to your loved one. I hope that falls into the gimmick category … but for now I am off to bake some bread.