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The Future of 3-D Printing Depends on Hipsters

The best scenario for 3-D printing involves a market for artisanal manufacturing.
November 20, 2012

It’s a good thing that 3-D printing startup MakerBot is based in Brooklyn, because the next phase of the burgeoning industry depends on the hipsters and yuppies-playing-hipster that the borough attracts. Why? Because when the rubber meets the road, most people don’t really want to create their own stuff. And so the next step for 3-D printing must include moving beyond tinkerers and nerds and toward consumers.

So who will pay upfront hardware costs for the delivery of low quality but highly differentiated, artisanal goods? The same people who buy local and organic, who buy T-shirts from Threadless, and who want to know the story behind their cup of coffee.

This point is meant to be agnostic on the question of whether 3-D printing will or won’t amount to a manufacturing revolution (though I have my doubts, and here are arguments for and against). But consider this bit from Chris Anderson’s fawning Wired cover story back in September about 3-D printing and the MakerBot in particular:

Just because you can make a million rubber duckies in your garage doesn’t mean you should: Made on a 3-D printer, the first ducky might run you just $20, but sadly so will the millionth—there is no economy of scale. If you injection-mold your ducks in a factory, though, the old fashioned way, the first may cost $10,000—for tooling the mold—but every one after that amortizes the initial outlay. By the time you’ve made a million, they cost just pennies apiece for the raw material. For small batches of a few hundred duckies, digital fabrication now wins. For big batches, the old analog way is still best.

In other words, the best case for scenario for 3-D printing requires creating a market for artisanal manufacturing. That means charging a premium less for the physical item and more for the bit of identity that goes along with customization. Maybe that takes the form of wealthier folks purchasing a MakerBot and paying for customized trinkets from fashionable designers; maybe for now it’s artists and industrial designers clustering together to print objects and sell them at a premium through traditional channels.

Either way, the future of manufacturing depends on the devotees of farmers’ markets, independent coffee shops, art museums, and record stores. Which means MakerBot picked the right offices.

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