10 to 10,000: The Sweet Spot for 3D Printing

The sweet spot for 3D printing is likely to fall somewhere between one-off creation of unique objects and mass production: short runs of 10 to 10,000 units. This is because 3D printing is not cost-competitive for single objects vs handcrafted production, nor is it so for creating the massive number of standardized parts that the modern economy relies on—parts like nuts, bolts, and screws of uniform size and quality.

An example of this model currently exists for many electronics goods.  Since many components such as circuit boards have periodic demand that doesn’t necessarily require the scale of centralized mass production and global distribution, specialized tools have been developed that allow small businesses to create versions of centrally designed components in relatively small batches.

Similarly, there may be an opportunity for local businesses to act as the fabrication and distribution hubs for professionally designed  objects that have sporadic demand. These hubs would benefit from  providing officially certified versions of brand-designed objects,  avoiding quality control issues that might otherwise be associated with  home 3D printing.

The global success of shanzhai products suggests that consumers are hungry for things they can’t always afford—and that many are even willing to buy non-branded products if they meet their needs. Where price points are creating under-served markets, expect new micro-manufacturers to jump in with locally relevant products that can be made more quickly and for far less overhead than those produced and marketed by large companies.

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