the latest copy
How 3D printing is changing the future
Imagine being able to go online, order pretty much anything, exactly to your personal specifications, and just an hour later it’s on your doorstep. That’s what companies like Amazon are envisaging. They are hoping to harness advances in 3D printing to fulfil consumers’ every desire. It’s emerged that the business has filed a patent application in the US for trucks equipped with 3D printers, which will take orders online and then produce the finished item either at a customer’s door, or on the way to it.
Or think even closer to home: imagine you’re hosting a dinner party but you don’t quite have enough cutlery for your extra guests. But instead of having to think ahead and order some more cutlery to arrive in time, or nipping out to the shops to pick some more up, all you have to do is download a design to your computer and print your guests their own knife and fork! It sounds farfetched, but it’s closer to reality than you think. Home desktop 3D printers are already here and are becoming more affordable, it’s only a matter of time before they’re an everyday household item, just like your cutlery.
What is 3D printing?
3D printing was born over 30 years ago when Chuck Hull of 3D Systems (a company built on his creation) created the very first working 3D printer. And the 21st Century is now seeing this technology grow at a rapid rate with a substantial increase in the sale of 3D printers, and a wide variety of applications and markets as the full potential of 3D printing is beginning to be realised. This rapid increase in sales and applications coincides with a decrease in cost of the hardware, which is now available both on an industrial and domestic level.
The 3D printing process starts with a Computer Aided Design (CAD), a bit like an architect’s house design. To prepare this CAD for printing, 3D modelling software ‘slices’ the design into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers. When the sliced CAD file is uploaded to a 3D printer, each ‘slice’ (or 2D image) can be read by the printer and the 3D object can be created layer by layer. It’s a bit like building a snowman (or rolling a snowball) – building it up, bit by bit.
There are now different types of 3D printing techniques available, but the core technology is the same. Material ‘ink’ is deposited layer by layer to build a 3D object. This process is also known as additive manufacturing. The range of materials used to print with are also growing – plastic is the most widely used, but we can also use ceramics, metal, sand and even food!
Applications and Uses
3D printing technology is being embraced and developed by a number of industries, most commonly for prototyping and in distributed manufacturing with applications in a wide variety of industries, like dental and medical, biotech (human tissue replacement), education, food and fashion (we can already buy 3D printed jewellery and glasses). And, on a larger scale, in industries such as architecture, civil and general engineering, industrial design, aerospace, construction and automotive engineering.
Many IT companies like Microsoft and Google enabled their hardware to perform 3D scanning, and this is a clear sign that future handheld devices like smartphones will have integrated 3D scanners. Digitising real objects into 3D models will become as easy as taking a picture.
Nike has partnered with HP and uses 3D printers to create multi-colored prototypes of shoes. They used to spend thousands of dollars on a prototype and wait weeks for it. Now, the cost is only in the hundreds of dollars, and changes can be made instantly on the computer and the prototype reprinted on the same day.
New Balance is the latest footwear company to bring 3D printing into its manufacturing mix, launching a shoe with an advanced sole which promises to offer new strength and elasticity. The company says advances in material sciences and an apparently fruitful partnership with 3D printing specialist 3D Systems are behind the high-tech runners.
The worldwide 3D printing industry is expected to grow from $3.07 billion in revenue in 2013 to $12.8 billion by 2018, and exceed $21 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020. As it evolves, 3D printing technology is destined to transform almost every major industry and change the way we live, work, and play in the future.
Source: Wohlers Report 2015
It’s predicted that 3D printing could have mass market appeal as capital costs can be offset by open source 3D printing, and customers will be able to avoid some of the usual costs and time involved when buying common household items, such as new cutlery for your dinner guests. Some advocates believe that this technological advancement will change the nature of commerce because end users can manufacture their own items and bypass trade and engagement with other people and corporations.
3D printers capable of outputting in colour and multiple materials already exist and will continue to develop and improve. With positive effects on the development of medicine, art, construction and science – as well as on key issues such as energy use and waste reduction – and the consumer desire for customisation and speed, 3D printing is set to change the manufacturing world as we know it.