Media Perspective: 3D printing could be big, if you can find a profitable use for it

So this week, as part one in a five-part series about Stuff To Be Thinking About Over The Next Few Years, we're going to talk about 3D printing.

And, I have to confess, I'm not entirely sure why. It's definitely interesting and definitely coming but I'm not really sure how it's going to impact you and your professional life.

However, let's not worry about that now. Let's have a look at what it is and why it's interesting, starting with a basic definition - nicked, in time-honoured manner, from Wikipedia: "3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing technology where a three-dimensional object is created by successive layers of material."

It started as a way of making prototypes for industrial design processes. It was big, unwieldy and expensive. And the objects were often just vague approximations of the finished product. But it's starting to become manageable, affordable and cheap. 3D printers are starting to be more like photocopiers than industrial kilns, the materials are less hazardous, the objects that get made available in more materials and with better finishes.

It probably won't be regular consumer technology within the next five years, although it might well be available at your local copy shop or in your production department. And some of our print suppliers might soon be offering to make you objects as well as posters. (Perhaps the most interesting consumer angle on this will be via services such as and - places where you can upload your design and get an object made and delivered. They're both slightly geeky as yet. My mum's not going to be adding to her owl collection by uploading her own 3D designs, but it's not far off.)

The story futurists have been telling about 3D printing is that we'll use it to print broken parts for our washing machines and cars - that seems unlikely any time soon.

But I can definitely see a world where retailers of small bits of plastic are as disrupted as the music industry has been by MP3s - I'm thinking of places such as Claire's Accessories and Games Workshop. 3D printing won't be free like file-swapping but it'll bypass lots of the costs that make a bit of plastic and cardboard cost £20 in the shops.

So what does this mean for we marketing and media folk? Like I say, I'm not entirely sure. But I'm convinced that when you can print custom objects as cheaply and easily as you can print paper, then something interesting will happen. 3D direct marketing might be the ugly side of it, more interesting promotional items the upside.

And perhaps that's where you can get your edge - start investigating 3D making before the rest of us and maybe you'll discover the killer application first.