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Over the past 20 years, the Internet has enabled rapid mass access to information, and in the past five years, Facebook and Twitter have transformed the way we share and gather our news and experiences. Now these information and communication revolutions are being followed by one in manufacturing via 3D printing, a technology 30 years in the making that is only just coming into the social consciousness. Yet behind the scenes, 3D printing has become an integral part of everything we interact with today, from cars and airplanes, to shoes and eyewear. And 3D printing will only continue to assert itself in our day-today life as technology advances and price points drop, and it becomes more accessible through the removal of expertuser barriers. In short, we are on the brink of a renaissance in manufacturing that is destined to change the way we make and create.
Also referred to as “additive manufacturing”, 3D printing rethinks traditional “subtractive” production. Rather than removing material to create the desired product, additive manufacturing builds from the bottom up. This simple conceptual difference leads to a drastically different outcome. As with carving a sculpture, subtractive manufacturing produces a waste byproduct in the form of unused, and often un-useable, rubble; additive manufacturing, however, only uses the material needed for the final product. Yet significant enhancements in sustainability are not the only advantage of additive manufacturing over traditional methods.
Just as a 2D printer would follow the pattern of information in a document, a 3D printer follows the pattern of a 3D, STL file. Yet in addition to a back-andforth horizontal axis, a 3D printer also has an up-anddown vertical axis to accommodate each added layer of height. Rather than ink, material is fused or deposited until each cross-section is complete.
"In order for 3D printing to transition to the mainstream, high skill, high tech barriers must be removed and prohibitive pricing must be abandoned"
3D printing is a single tool process,meaning there is no change in method based on product specifics. This means no added lead time or costs for simple versus complicated objects,making the production of sophisticated customizations and geometries free of charge. This capability opens unknown doors in engineering and design. Because 3D printing lets designers place material precisely where it is needed, designs can be made with built-in structures that reduce final part count and weight. These reductions are especially useful in automotive and aerospace applications, as they lead to functional components that are lighter and more fuel efficient. Whereas traditional subtractive methods limit what is possible depending on the type or size of tools required, 3D printing voids these considerations.
The innovation of 3D printing was brought about in 1986 by Charles (‘Chuck’) Hull, patent holder of the first stereolithography system and founder of the global 3D printing company, 3D Systems. Hull created his first machine in the hopes of introducing better quality and accuracy to the prototyping process and cutting product time to market. Before 3D printing, concept models and functional prototypes cost thousands of dollars and took months to produce. 3D printers now offer automated operation and permit the unmonitored printing of concept models, prototypes and end use parts that can be created overnight for inspection, redesign or use the following morning.
Since its introduction, a wide array of materials have become available for use with 3D printers, including metals, waxes, rubber-like materials, composites, ceramics, plastics and nylons. Used more and more commonly across industries, 3D printing has become an indispensable part of many manufacturing and marketing processes, and is evolving further to become part of educational and home environments.
In order for 3D printing to transition to the mainstream, high skill, high tech barriers must be removed and prohibitive pricing must be abandoned. These changes are unfolding as 3D printing companies compete to create the most capable products at more affordable prices. Online communities and marketplaces for the sharing, selling and free download of 3D files, such as Cubify and Shapeways, are also taking some of the first steps required to democratize this technology and remove user intimidation through gamified content creation.
The mainstay of the industry remains professional and production-grade machines, priced at up to half a million dollars and beyond. These 3D printers, varying in speed, resolution, material capability and size, serve an incredible multitude of applications. Automotive and aerospace engineers use 3D printing for design verification, prototyping and producing efficiency-enhancing, end use parts. Current F-18 fighter jets, for example, are manufactured with 90 3D printed parts, which drove the evolution of the F-35 model which incorporates 900. 3D printing also produces full color models for architectural firms, creates casting molds for jewelers and expedites development cycles across manufacturing sectors, from shoes to power tools. 3D printing has also become a significant contributor to dental and medical fields, producing custom hearing aids and dental restorations. Invisalign orthodontics trays are customized and 3D printed enmasse, with over 17 million produced in 2013. Now personalized prosthetics can be 3D printed, and developments are even underway to 3D print human organs, which could significantly reduce the number of organ transplant rejections by printing replacement organs with the recipient’s own tissues.
As if these extensive and expanding capabilities were not enough, 3D printing carries with it yet another game-changing component in the digital file. Because 3D printing primarily moves designs rather than products, huge possibilities are made available, with geopolitical, economic, environmental and social ramifications, just to name a few. Outsourced items may be re-localized, inventory costs may be reduced or eliminated, and the carbon footprint of global transportation may shrink. Printing parts on-demand also has security implications for the military,offering remote locations replenishable access to an entire catalogue of spare tools and parts. These implications and the endless potential of 3D printing are what have earned it its label as a “disruptive” technology.
If this is the first you have read about 3D printing, you can be confident that it will not be the last. The third industrial revolution is only just beginning.