But even if you’re not sold on 3D printing, you probably wouldn’t be surprised if the card game was manufactured digitally (via 2D digital printing), right?

Thirty years ago, when 2D digital printing was just taking off, nearly everyone said that it wasn’t good enough, fast enough, or flexible enough…and that it was just too damn expensive.

At that time color copies cost $2 per page and mass produced (offset lithography) pages were $.02 each. Digital printing was 100 times more expensive! Fast forward 30 years and walk into any retail print shop. Color prints (copies) still cost at least $.20 per page and the cost of mass produced pages has actually dropped. Digital printing is still ten times more expensive! Yet it has managed to become a $140 Billion industry and in the next few years will grow to $180 billion.

Why does digital printing flourish? Mass production only hits those low price points when thousands or in some cases, millions of copies are ordered. It’s a function of make-ready and run cost. The more you print, the less you pay. Digital print doesn’t work that way. The unit cost is essentially fixed, whether you order one or a million. 3D printing offers a similar economic model – unit costs are basically fixed.

How Does Digital Manufacturing (2D or 3D) Compete?

By allowing consumers to order products in the quantity they want (often just one), when and where they want them. Would you be willing to pay a premium for that convenience?

The final numbers aren’t in yet, but prior to the holiday gift-giving season, Forrester forecasted that eCommerce sales would grow by 15% and reach $78 billion this year. People made online purchases in droves, many lured by the promise of free shipping and guaranteed arrival in time for Christmas. It seems the industry may have overpromised and underdelivered. Thousands of packages shipped via UPS didn’t make it on time. Now retailers like Amazon and Kohl’s are struggling to satisfy their customers and even U.S. Senators are suggesting UPS refund customers’ money.

As usual in these situations, responses from the press and industry vary from tempered to sensational, but yesterday I read an essay from David Sable, the CEO of Y&R Advertising. In it he makes the point that, “Digital is everything, but not everything is digital. Great to order last-minute online, but if the package never makes it to its destination, then you have, well, the rampant customer dissatisfaction we’re seeing right now.”

What if the product itself were digital? Then you could order last-minute and eliminate the concerns related to delivery.

But, What About Quality?

Its been 30 years since 2D digital printing went mainstream and the quality still isn’t as good. But, consumer’s perception of quality has changed. Great is now the enemy of good enough.

Speed and capability have also improved. Back then a color copier / printer could produce five pages per minute. Now they can print 100 plus. It took 30 years to improve the speed by a magnitude of twenty. Also back then, simple finishing options like collation stapling were a big deal. Now real paperback books are manufactured in-line, on demand.

3D Printing Has an Advantage in the Here and Now

Today the cost of R&D is less and the barrier to entry is much lower. Ilya Strebulaev, a Stanford University Finance Professor, recently wrote about how angel investors are disrupting business through their investments in startups. One of the reasons they’re able to do so successfully is that the cost of starting up a tech company, due to cloud computing and other factors, is a fraction of what it once was. Toss crowdfunding and crowdsourcing into that mix and you’ve got a potent recipe for startup success.

Startup growth isn’t lost on big companies either. They’re gobbling up startups in an effort to tap into their innovations. Walmart, for instance has acquired four startups this year, in part to help it better compete with eCommerce players like Amazon.

What this has done is help speed up the pace of innovation. More people with better tools working on problems. Then once a solution is found and a business model is formed, bigger companies are leveraging their resources to accelerate adoption of the solution further and faster.

Like companies in retail, biotech, and financial services, among others, startup innovation is running rampant in 3D printing. In the past year, many of the top projects on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo were either directly related to 3D printing or featured a 3D printed component. As a co-founder of a startup in the space I can also tell you that angel investors are keenly interested. Further, 3D printing’s big players like 3D Systems and Stratasys are fueling their share of innovation. 3D systems alone has made a dozen acquisitions in the past two years.

What does it mean for 3D printing? The technology is evolving much faster than 2D digital printing did once it went mainstream. New substrates, new printing methods, and new ideas around assembly and use are quickly gaining traction. The 3D printing ecosystem is like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Think for a moment about the adoption curve of smart devices versus desktop PC’s. In a period of 5 years they’ve been able to do what took the PC decades. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2015, tablet sales will overtake sales of desktop and laptop computers. Mobile phones already dwarf PC sales. 56% of people on our planet already have a smartphone and 50% of them use it as their primary source of accessing the Internet.

I’m not suggesting that the pace of innovation and adoption in 3D printing will happen as quickly as mobile computing, but it could for all the reasons stated above. I’m also not saying that 3D printing will replace mass manufacturing. Just like digital and traditional 2D printing methods, they’ll coexist. There will be times when it makes sense to buy a product off the shelf and others when and where it makes sense to manufacture on demand. Consumers will make that decision for variety of reasons…and soon, instead of asking, what can be 3D printed, they might be asking, “why can’t this be 3D printed?”

Camera image courtesy of Pinhole. For more, visit their Kickstarter project

3D Faster is our new 3D Printing segment provided by our good friends at 3DLT. John Hauer is co-founder, Chief Marketing Officer and Tech Innovator at 3DLT you can find 3DLT on the web here and email them atsayhello@3DLT.com