Can you 3D print a 3D printer?

“What’s actually our view on 3D printing?” I had heard talk about 3D printing but was not at all familiar with the concept at the time the question was casually popped to me by a colleague. Certainly I did not have a view – let alone a ‘house view’ for the whole company. All I knew at the time seemed a bit … well a lot like science fiction really. It had never occurred to me there could be any significant impact on real estate.

Hence I started to dig out a bit more on the topic.  Amazingly I found a lot of stuff online about 3D printing; and lots of different opinions about how important it could become for production but also other sectors, including construction and real estate. Today, uncountable articles and a few books about ‘the rise of the maker industry’ and a ‘new industrial revolution’ later, I must admit I am fascinated by the topic – and do have indeed a very specific opinion.

3D printing will get big sooner than many believe it will.

Of course, my claim is unlikely to change the mind of those who think it won’t or that at least it would take a long time to become a major trend. Still, this caution might be in part because the change companies would be required to adopt  is simply too big– not because the potential of the technology itself isn’t recognized. Indeed, new 3D printing production processes would make large parts of traditional machinery and technology obsolete. Companies would have to recruit new talent to take on different roles (and deal with existing employees that do not have these skills) and build new supply chains based on different sales, manufacturing and distribution processes.

Nevertheless, the traditional manufacturing business model built around economies of scale with mass production  predominantly taking place in low-cost manufacturing countries across Asia is already under pressure. This is due in part to rising labour costs and significantly increased and potentially further rising transport costs. More importantly, many companies notice increasing disintegration between design and production that they feel is leading to competitive disadvantage. On top of this, the impact of the internet, which is driving shorter product life-cycles due to a growing range of products along with increasing product customization and just-in-time delivery implies the need of customized just-in-time manufacturing of smaller stacks of products at close distance to the customer.

3d supply chain










However, 3D printing has not been designed and indeed is unlikely to become suitable for mass production. Rather it occupies the domain of personalized, customer specific products. It will be driven by open-source software that allows customers to create their own customized products online with only a few clicks of the mouse. With growing customer demand for individually created products, more and more brands will start to offer this service, basically turning the customer into its own manufacturer. The good news is you do not need to buy a 3D printer nor have significant technical knowledge in doing this. 3D printing services will take care of the actual printing process. The first of these services are already starting to emerge. In the US, UPS has started a trial renting out 3D printers which apparently has been very successful. Meanwhile, UK supermarket chain Asda is now offering a 3D scanning and printing service in its store in York while Tesco has announced to start a similar service soon.

With growing 3D print manufacturing the nature of production space is likely to change from large bespoke production facilities to more standardized small and medium sized buildings and potentially blur the distinction between business, industrial and logistics space as we have set out in a report assessing the evolution of manufacturing and its impact on real estate markets.

However, the impact 3D printing could have on real estate is not stopping there. Indeed, entire buildings might be created in 3D print in the future. There are several projects already exploring this potential. In Amsterdam, a 20-foot-tall 3D printer called ‘KamerMaker’ (Dutch for room maker) is currently printing a house that is expected to be opened to the public this Spring. Likewise, the University of Southern California has developed a method called Contour Crafting to 3D print houses in less than 24 hours that uses a giant 3D printer that can force out wet cement.

For sure, it will take time to establish a market for 3D printed homes let alone office buildings or shopping centres – although some parts of commercial real estate developments could easily being produced with a 3D printer. Nevertheless, just imagine what implications it could have if the technology really advanced to the point where ‘developing’ buildings in 3D print will become a normal business model offering time and cost advantages to developers, investors and (home) owners.

There is only one question which so far I have not found a definite answer for: Can you actually 3D print a 3D printer?