3D printing: Thinking beyond the box

The founder of specialist KBB research company JKMR, Jayne Barber, can see a future where components and even whole houses are 3D printed and where the customisation of products can be taken to hitherto undreamt-of levels.

When the kitchen industry talks about the future, it often focuses on two particular aspects – product design and technology, such as the ‘smart home’ or ‘eco kitchens’ – and how technological changes impact retail processes – the use of virtual reality as a selling tool, for instance. 

But equally important could be changes in the manufacturing process itself, and in particular how 3D printing may be a major disruptor. At present, 3D printing is a relatively niche part of global manufacturing, but it is one that is predicted to triple in size over the next few years. In the kitchen market, as in many other markets, it has the potential to shift manufacturing from a remote mass-volume production model to the personalisation of products made to order.  

If 3D printing does become a major part of the production process in the kitchen sector, then manufacturers in the current sense may switch to being a 3D printed object ‘enabler’, working directly with the retailer or homeowner to make the required products. 

In this scenario, the design and detailed specification of each and every item would be unique for each householder, and as a result the logistical side of the market would be considerably simplified, removing a need for vast stocks of products to be warehoused.   

Ultimately, home-based 3D printers could mean that a diminishing proportion of householders would even require an external company to ‘make’ some or all products for them. It has even been suggested that within the next 20 years all kitchen products could be 3D printed by the retailer or at home under licence, compiled by nanobots, and at the end of their life (whether due to obsolescence, age, or owner choice) recycled back into their raw components for turning into new products.

In the shorter term, many industries already use 3D printing to allow for quicker design and development processes, while developments in 3D printing in the electronics industry are enabling items, such as touch sensors, to be produced far more cheaply.  

3D printing technology is already being used to make more limited-edition collections in the high-end furnishing market. Another ‘added benefit’ of 3D printing is reduced start-up costs for new market entrants, since they no longer need to finance large workshops or factories or have the same level of employees. All these aspects mean that 3D printing may lead to a new generation of small-scale furniture producers, creating products that are indeed bespoke, but with a different approach to the concept of ‘hand-made’.

The 3D printing model also opens up the way to a massive expansion in consumers being to able to order extra personalisation or tailored specification at point of sale. This could be something as simple as handles tailor-made for customers who find the standard handle option unsuited to their accessibility needs, finally making every kitchen product truly universally suitable.

3D printing may also see a change from the current model of fixture and fitting manufacturers being external entities supplying a cabinet manufacturer. Instead, cabinet manufacturers would be able to 3D print a range of fixtures and fittings in-house – possibly under licence to protect established brand names – rather than needing to buy them in. Case studies from suppliers of 3D printers claim that, compared with traditional injection moulding processes, for instance, 3D printing of furnishing components can reduce production time by almost a quarter and costs by virtually 80%.

The idea of widgets and handles being 3D-printed does not require much imagination – the idea of an entire house being 3D-printed probably does. Yet this concept is being developed through computer-controlled printing of concrete components, and recently a Dutch couple became the first in Europe to move into a totally 3D-printed house. 

There are those in the global construction market who see 3D printing as the most ecological future of new housing and while a house, however it is built, will always need a kitchen, developers building in a totally different way may well want kitchen products that look to the future in their production methods too.

3D printing also provides the kitchen market with an opportunity to finally think outside the box in a literal sense. At present, cabinets, MDAs, even worktops, are all geometrically shaped boxes. This, it can be argued, is because conventional manufacturing processes work best when constructing a cuboid form. 3D printing, however, has no such limitations. So, one day in the future, maybe there will be cone-shaped, spherical refrigerators, and the only limit to a kitchen’s design will be the imagination of the industry itself. 

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