Amazon will seize 3-D printing
Sam Finegold | Friday, August 24, 2012
3-D printing is going to revolutionize online shopping. Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos realizes that, and probably envisions Amazon orchestrating the revolution. As a testament to how seriously Bezos takes 3-D printing, Bezos, along with two other venture capital groups, helped MakerBot, a seller of consumer 3-D printers and the accompanying necessary materials, raise $10 million.
3-D printing operates like a 2-D printer, but adds another dimension out of the plane of the paper. It does so through repeated deposition of layers of a liquid plastic or melted metal ink. The technology has followed Moore’s Law, rapidly decreasing in cost. Major companies, including General Electric, have proposed using 3-D printing in manufacturing processes. Additionally, smaller companies use 3-D printing to produce niche products. Bespoke Innovations 3-D prints artistic, custom prosthetics. It is even possible to print cell phone circuitry.
3-D printing will link the virtual and physical world seamlessly. Users will be able to download a Computer Animated Drawing (CAD) file and print the desired product in their home, or maybe print the product at a regional center kitted with more heavy duty printers capable of printing more complicated objects. 3-D printing will also diversify suppliers, as it will require less infrastructure and investment to begin a company if product design is entirely virtual. Therefore, it will be possible for many niche companies to compete with Amazon. Amazon is well positioned to take advantage of 3-D printing, but it also stands to lose out if it does not stay ahead of the curve.
But there are several ways Bezos and his company can anticipate and lead the change in 3-D printing.
The first step would probably be to buy up companies such as Shapeways, which are already allowing users to upload designs and customers to then print these designs. Amazon can also create in-house 3-D printing and tools on its site to embellish conventional products using its in-house 3-D printing. It is unlikely that most adults will have the necessary skills, the time and interest to design complex products. Amazon can offer the easy alternative: offer customizable products. By acquiring companies and hiring in-house designers, Amazon can head off the inevitable diversity of suppliers and instead establish itself as a marketplace for different users to upload their designs, as Shapeways already does.
So my advice: Buy stock in Amazon. Not only did its CEO redefine the book industry; he is also heavily involved in the privatized space industry. When it comes to 3-D printing, which has been hailed the next trillion-dollar industry, I would not be surprised if Bezos has already pounced.
This column originally ran in the Aug. 14 issue of the Harvard Political Review, serving Harvard University.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.