3D Printing–Is the way we make things set for a revolution?

Before the industrialization manufacturing was a cottage industry pursued at home. Once the flying shuttle, the Spinning Jenny and other machines were invented manufacturing moved out of the homes and in to factories. And since then, most of what we do, we do in factories. This however might not remain the case by mid-century.

Since 30 years ago, what is commonly known as 3D printing has been involved. The technology is now close to a larger breakthrough, potentially revolutionizing the way we do things. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing is the method of producing things layer by layer enabling all sorts of things being produced, in all sorts of material, with little waste.

According to McKinsey the size of the market of goods for commercial and industrial use that could be “printed” is estimated to be $5tn in 2025. By that time McKinsey estimates that $2230-550bn to be produced by 3D printing. And that will only be the beginning. Once 3D printers can be bought for no more than a normal laser printer it could truly revolutionize how things are done. Why go to the shop if something is broken? Just print a new one!

Arcam printerInterchangeably referred to as additive printing or manufacturing, the 3D printing technology involves high speed scanning of objects and their conversion into three-dimensional physical models.

There are various techniques that are used in 3D printers and almost all are based on the additive fabrication methods. This method involves building an object one layer at a time. These layers range from a millimetre to less than 1/1000th of an inch.

There are a wide range of 3D printing materials that are currently available in the industrial market and that is being developed for the consumer market such as plastics, metals and ceramics. Researchers and inventors are at the same time working hard to facilitate 3D printing with e.g. composites, paper, plaster, wood, organic (tissue/cells), nylon, food, and concrete.

Titanium printed turbine_blade_for_aero_engineThe range of applications for parts produced through 3D printing is growing at a rapid pace. Fuelled by the technological advancements in the field of new 3D printing materials and improvements in system process control, speed, cost, accuracy, and reliability, the numbers of industries using 3D printing is rising. On the right is one example, a titanium printed turbine blade for an engine.

The major applications of 3D printing today are:

Concept modelling – One of the basic and first applications of 3D printing is concept modelling. It enables the small engineering firms to test their ideas before going into full production, thereby, saving time and money. Even for larger firms, concept modelling is used before pitching it to prospective investor or before presenting it to the management.

Functional prototyping – Functional prototyping helps companies to save a lot of money and reduce time to market as it enables functional testing of the product. Companies are increasingly applying 3D printing for functional check of products, enabling them in rectifying errors in design and in improving certain features.

Manufacturing tooling – This application allows engineering companies to support low-volume production before they set up fully-fledged production facilities. Manufacturing tooling helps companies in creating prototypes from the same process and materials that is to be used in the final manufacturing.

End Use Parts – 3D printing helps companies produce custom parts with fine feature details and exceptionally smooth surfaces. In addition to quick and accurate prototyping for visualization, testing, and evaluation; 3D printing machines provide affordable design-to-manufacture solutions.

Finishing – 3D printers also allow sealing, polishing and painting of the final products. In addition to normal finishing, 3D printers are also capable of bead blasting and electroplating.

As the cost of 3D printers is falling and the quality of output is improving, it is slowly moving from research phase to low-volume manufacturing industries, particularly in aerospace and medical applications. 3D printing is also gaining traction in the defence industry. The US Army recently experimented with a truck-mounted 3D printer capable of outputting spare tank and other vehicle components on the battlefield. Researchers are also working on 3D concrete printing that could allow large building components and the use of 3D printers is also expected to create replacement organs for human body in the future.

With the technology fast improving and the costs coming down 3D printing is set to be one of the next disruptive technologies that will change society as we know it. It does not mean that traditional manufacturing will disappear; many things will be far too big to print.

That said, regardless of how large the market in itself will be it will have a profound impact on society. It is already possible to print your own gun, and as it has become very difficult to stop people from copying original (digital) content, such as music and video, the same could be true for manufactured items in the future. And when that is the case, 3D printing will have become a truly disruptive technology.

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