Christopher Mims argues that 3D printing is the next Virtual Reality. I think he misses the point. I see 3D printing as having a bright future, but not because I see it as necessarily the future of mass production. I see 3D printing taking over the fringes, because it makes small-scale manufacturing practical.
I can’t begin to build a comprehensive list of fringe markets, but there’s one fringe market I know well. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of miniature trains–my last publication for money was an article in a magazine called Classic Toy Trains–and the applications of 3D printing in that hobby are limitless.
Parts for long-out-of-production trains are a natural for this, at least in cases when parts made of plastic would be durable enough. Some parts just aren’t being made due to lack of sufficient demand, but 3D printing would make one-off production realistic.
For things like buildings and figures, 3D printing is an even better fit. Particularly in anything other than HO or N scale, buildings go in and out of production frequently because it’s difficult to gauge demand. 3D printing eliminates that last step. Just produce as many as necessary, or let people buy the design, download it, and print it themselves.
Similar situations exist in other hobbies. People will start using 3D printers to print replacement parts like vintage Matchbox wheels. Or custom wheels and interiors for those who like to modify die-cast cars.
And no doubt people will come up with other uses for them, once they become available. Just as they have for smartphones.