Stratasys, Ltd. (SSYS), Apple Inc. (AAPL), Nike, Inc. (NKE): Steve Jobs, PCs, and the Incredible Opportunity in 3-D Printing

Ironically, it is those ordinary households that will prove them wrong. Everyday hobbyists, or “makers” as they’re often referred to, will show the world the true potential of 3-D printers, not necessarily the companies that manufacture them. Jobs elaborated on the importance of this concept as the interview continued:

INC.: That’s a big idea.

JOBS: It’s an extremely powerful paradigm. It’s what has driven a bunch of us since this whole thing began to happen, and it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed for me since 1975. That’s almost 15 years now. I believe this is one of the most important things that’s going to happen in our generation. It would be easy to step back and say, “Well, it’s pretty much over now.” But if you look carefully, it’s not over by any stretch of the imagination. The technological advances are coming at a rate that is far more ferocious than ever. To me, it’s staggering to contemplate the tools we’re going to be able to put in people’s hands in the next few years—and I don’t get impressed by this stuff so easily anymore.

So what we’re doing here is driven by a fairly strong faith that people are going to continue to be as creative and as ingenious and as sharing with their results as they have been over the past 15 years. That sharing gives us a kind of leverage. For every improvement we can make in the tools we give people, we can improve the ultimate results even more, thanks to this leverage. That’s what gets us so excited.

In all of my research around 3-D printing, I have yet to find an expert  or CEO so vividly describe the possible evolution of this technology – and Jobs wasn’t even talking about 3-D printers!

However, certain recent innovators have alluded to the idea of individual empowerment as a game-changer for 3-D printing. Fellow Fool Tim Beyers recently described his trip to tech conference SXSW, where Mary Huang, co-founder of 3-D printed design house Continuum Fashion, stated in a panel discussion: “If you give people the opportunity to be creative, they will surpass your expectations.”

Huang’s fashion company serves as a prime example of how 3-D printing can add value to goods that are often viewed as commodities. Shoes, jewelry, and apparel, for instance, are primarily manufactured in low-cost overseas countries. In the future, if customized manufacturing allows American companies to design and print these products in-house, this tweaks the cost-benefit equation. Why? Because these are precisely the types of goods that people might want or need to have personally customized for a perfect fit. The advantages of low-cost labor could be offset by the lower transportation costs and the ability to tailor to the customer’s needs.

Innovative clothing companies like Nike Inc. (NYSE:NKE) recognize this opportunity. Nike is already using 3-D printers to craft high-tech football cleats, for example, in an effort to improve an athlete’s initial acceleration during a sprint.

Shane Kohatsu, Nike’s director of footwear innovation, noted that a 3-D printing laser technology referred to as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) enabled new construction techniques that would otherwise not have been feasible: “SLS technology has revolutionized the way we design cleat plates – even beyond football – and gives Nike the ability to create solutions that were not possible within the constraints of traditional manufacturing processes.”

Nike’s Vapor Laser Talon shoe with a 3-D printed plate. Source: Nike

Yes, the company Phil Knight started in the 1970s with his wife’s waffle iron (to create the rubber sole in Nike shoes) recognizes the power of small-scale manufacturing. One can only imagine how much easier Nike Inc. (NYSE:NKE)’s early days would have been with a 3-D printer instead of an old kitchen appliance!