For the advertising industry, and much of the general public, the last two decades ended in the midst of a revolution caused by a technology that was barely noticeable at the beginning of the decade. In 1980, few would have guessed that personal computers, along with desktop publishing software, would fundamentally change the way our industry did business. In 1990, again, the Internet was only known and used by a relatively small set people, yet by the end of the decade it was a major force in our industry, and in society and the economy.
Once again we are facing a new decade, and we have to wonder what the next dominant technology likely to change our way of life is. While there are a number of candidates for the "next big technology," including the perennial favorite, the free-energy device, our bet is on a technology called 3D printing, which, as the name implies, is a technology that literally prints real three-dimensional objects.
3D printing has been around for well over a decade, and has long been an essential part of something called rapid prototyping technology (RPT), and is sometimes used by the marketing industry to create models for marketing focus groups and pre-production sales demos. (Neco Incorporated, located in Denver, provides this service.)
In the beginning 3D printing was done with custom-made machines, which kept prices high and prevented widespread use. However, off-the-shelf 3D printers have been commercially available since 1988, when 3D Systems introduced a system based on Stereolithography (SLI). In this system, a laser is used to harden a liquid resin held in a moveable tray. After each layer of the object is created, the tray is lowered slightly, and the next layer of the object is created, a process repeated until the object is completed. In 1990, Stratasys introduced a 3D printer based on melting and extruding each layer of the object through small nozzles, called the Fused Deposition Method (FDS). In 1992, another 3D system was marketed by DTM, based on using a laser to fuse powder instead of liquid resin, called Selective Layer Sintering (SLS).
Over the years, 3D printing has become so common in the design industry that a 3D file format has emerged, using the ".stl" extension. Most major CAD programs today can create and export a .sli file simply by selecting one of the program's "save as" options.
While today's 3D printers are relatively expensive, somewhat comparable to digital typesetters of the 1980s, a recent cover story in New Scientist suggests that a home version of a 3D printer might be available within two years. It would be rather crude by rapid prototyping standards of today, but once 3D printers hit the extremely competitive home electronics market, quality will evolve rapidly.
Initially, home 3D printer demand will probably be driven by the toy and hobby industries, especially in the areas of plastic models and trains. Not only could a 3D printer easily make Leggos until the cows came home, it could also make the more sophisticated structures required for modelers and train enthusiasts. In the future, model companies like Revell-Monogram and Tamiya will sell files of models instead of kits in boxes as they do now. Model trains will be sold much the same way. While it won't be possible to print working engines in the near future, non-motorized train cars and scenery items like buildings, railroad yard facilities, livestock, would be easy to print in 3D.
The hobby market will encourage improving the ability of 3D printers to print high quality graphics on the objects they create. By their very nature, 3D printers will excel at printing complicated graphics on irregular surfaces, just the quality hobbyists need to make models more realistic than anything they could ever hope to paint by hand, or even by using decals. It's not unreasonable to expect 3D printers available ten years from to have the same resolution as home printers today, that is, up to 1440 dots per inch, and in full color, so the reality of printing photo-realistic objects is only years away.
For advertising agencies, the development of home 3D printing will open up a fundamentally new media to reach consumers with. Instead of in 2D ads on magazine and newspaper pages, advertisers could have their logos and slogans appearing in consumer's homes on a variety of household objects, and the best feature of this approach is that consumers pay for the actual manufacturing of the promotional items.
Promotional giveaways are nearly as old as advertising itself. The only problem with them is they can cost a lot of money, both to make and to distribute. Once a significant number of consumers have 3D printers at home, advertisers can simply post 3D files for them on the Internet, eliminating most of the usual production and distribution expenses. The 3D object files posted might be something useful, like kitchen utensils or tools, or merely collectibles, but they all would have the advertiser's logo on them.
Today, some of the more advanced 3D printers can create objects using over 50 different materials. It's not unreasonable to think that, in time, consumers will be creating objects at home as complicated as new motherboards for their computers. Ultimately, the evolution of 3D printing will lead to something like a Star Trek matter replicator. The long term implications of 3D printing will be profound for society, and extremely problematic for any industry dependent on manufacturing to maintain its profit margins. In the future, consumers will probably make most of what they need at home, with their own 3D printers.
So where will the 3D printing revolution leave the advertising industry when it's over? Still in business, of course. While consumers may eventually make what they need at home, much as they once did on farms, it's unlikely consumers will ever design much of what they need themselves. Consumers will still pay for the latest fashions, the newest appliance designs, the latest toys, they'll just buy the 3D file instead of the product. Advertising agencies will still be needed to help consumers decide which are the best files to buy, even in a world where consumers can print anything they can imagine.