3D Printing: Evolution rather than revolution

In 2013, a speculation on the topic “Does 3D printing mean the end of the global supply chain?” was initiated in a blog written by Kristina Pelzel (German). Today, almost three years and a lot of 3D printing hype later, it is time for the current technical state-of-the-art to be analyzed and to evaluate the effects of this technology on our world. In this two-part blog series, the first part is focused on defining the current state of development. The second part will deliver an outlook based on this defined state.

Is 3D printing truly a revolution?

Answering the question above is not easy because terms like “3D printing”, “additive manufacturing” and “rapid prototyping” are often used synonymously, even though they describe different technologies, philosophies and concepts. Today, as in 2013, the degree of sophistication and market penetration of these technologies strongly depend on the way they are applied and the industry in which they are applied. However, one thing is certain: 3D printing is becoming an established, market-changing technology in more and more areas.

The 3D printing hype, which started in 2013 and – at least according to the media – lasted for about one year, left the impression that a new technology was taking over the market. This might have encouraged too high of expectations: for example, the impression that within a few months all manufacturing technologies would be replaced by 3D printing, and that everybody would be able to simply print their spare parts at home.

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Why businesses need to get ready for 3D printing

One night in the 1980s, Charles Hull invented the world’s first 3D Printer using the method of Stereolithography (SLA). Hull was, however, aware that it would take around 30 years before such a technology is widely adopted. Well, he was absolutely right! Despite being patented in 1986, 3D printing was only popularised in the 2010s.

3D Printing is a computerised process of creating a three-dimensional object by forming successive layers of materials. Numerous manuals on operating 3D printers are circulating on the internet, and the process is being simplified over time as Microsoft and Google have started enabling 3D scanning through their hardware. Smartphone companies are also developing technologies to integrate 3D scanners in future versions of their products. As of now, the process generally consists of feeding the sliced version of a 3D model (divided into thousands of layers using software) into a 3D Printer via a USB flash drive or Wifi. The printer then analyses every slice as a 2D image before replicating the 3D object.

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Viewpoint: Catapult chief Dick Elsy on the government’s additive strategy

Leading figures from UK industry have joined forces with academia and government in the UK Additive Manufacturing Steering Group

Our world is evolving rapidly. A growing, longer-living population, a generation of digital toddlers, a changing climate and reducing natural resources are but a few examples of changes we face. Technology will be at the heart of our response. The speed and manner in which we develop new technologies to a position where industry can reap the full benefit of their potential will be critical to building a successful and balanced UK economy. It is also at the core of what the High Value Manufacturing Catapult is set up to do.

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What does the rise of 3D printing mean for global companies?

It’s long been a lament of astronauts: If only there were pizza in space. So a couple of years ago, NASA awarded a US$125,000 grant to a mechanical engineer to solve the problem. He produced a prototype 3D printer that “prints” layers of food out of powdered cartridges. First comes a layer of dough (cooked via a heat plate at the bottom of the printer); then some tomato powder, water, and oil for a sauce; all topped by a mouthwatering “protein layer.” A 3D-printed pizza has to be at least better than freeze-dried.

If 3D printing can deliver pizza to outer space, what can it do back home? That’s becoming less and less of an idle question as the 3D printer continues to move away from its origins as a bulky, ultra-expensive plaything for hobbyists and early adopters.

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A big picture perspective on additive manufacturing

A couple of trips away from the office in recent weeks have served to reiterate to me the position of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing industry within a much broader context. It’s always a good thing when this happens I find, as it gives me a much wider perspective — both personally and in the way that I approach my work. Sometimes I am guilty of focusing too closely on the minutiae and forget to take a breath and look at the bigger picture within a much larger framework. Thus I am grateful when opportunities arise that allow me to take stock. And so even as 2016 heads towards its close, the bigger picture I speak of is worth considering from a couple of angles.

When I attended IMTS recently, I was wholly struck by the vast size of this trade show; four buildings at McCormick Place were filled, some on multiple levels, with swathes of companies (2,407 of them) offering every conceivable manufacturing product and service. It was immense! The Additive Manufacturing Pavilion was dwarfed by comparison, and did not cover even 1% of the floor space. It was by no means insignificant, and it drew considerable interest and visitor numbers, but it drew a poignant analogy. Moreover, even while appreciating where additive technology currently fits within the spectrum of manufacturing technology in terms of size and revenues ($5 billion versus multi-trillion) the considerable optimism for its current application and future potential is equally real.

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Early days of internet offer lessons for boosting 3D printing

Even in its relative infancy, 3D printing has created an enormous list of possibilities: dental aligners to straighten your teeth, unique toys for your children, inexpensive custom prosthetics for people with limb deficiencies, and restoring lost or destroyed cultural artifacts. It can also be used to create untraceable firearms and an endless supply of copyright infringements.

Just as when the internet developed, 3D printing is opening doors to amazing opportunities and benefits – as well as some undeniable dangers. Also called “additive manufacturing,” 3D printing’s enabling of truly decentralized, democratized innovation will challenge traditional legal, economic and social norms. Potentially faulty products and counterfeit goods are again among the leading concerns. Some people are already calling for preemptive regulation of 3D printing on those grounds.

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