3D printing may be one of the most exciting technologies to come along in quite a while. It has the potential to revolutionize the way that many everyday products and parts are produced and farther down the road as the technology is refined, to make it much easier for businesses (as well as end consumers) to produce their own simple products and replacement parts.
For the trade show industry, the impact of 3D printing will likely be felt the most in exhibit fabrication. Current 3D printers are still somewhat expensive and take quite a while to create products. They also can only work with a limited number of materials, typically a few types of plastic (although printers that can print metal are also available). As the technology matures, however, one can foresee a time when custom parts for exhibit fabrication could easily be produced in house, without having to have them custom ordered. This could save significant amounts of time and money.
Already, current model 3D printers are capable of printing replacement parts for a number of tradeshow booths and displays. The beauty of the 3D printer is that it can literally create just about any kind of object from a CAD-type program. So, if a designer needs a particular part to make one aspect of his tradeshow booths fit together, or to retrofit some other stand or display, he can easily create it on a computer and have it printed right away.
As far as large-scale exhibit fabrication goes, it may be a while before 3D printers of the scale and versatility required to print entire sections of tradeshow booths will be available, but the possibility is certainly there for the supply chain to be almost entirely decentralized. Only time will tell whether the technology can scale up to that level easily enough and still remain cost-effective compared to traditional manufacturing and fabrication techniques.
Whether 3D printing technology eventually displaces traditional manufacturing technology for all or even part of the exhibit fabrication process, the impact will still be significant. Even if it is relegated to smaller applications, the versatility and freedom that CAD and 3D printing provide are unprecedented and should excite any designer.