11th March 2013

3D Printing: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Just recently the media was buzzing with news that Cornell University researchers had managed to create a replacement ear using a 3D printer and injections of living cells. It was the latest achievement in a long line of breakthroughs in 3D printing.

Suddenly 3D printing seems to have come of age and industries as diverse as defense and healthcare are making more and more use of this technology. While 3D printing may seem like the latest ‘new thing’ it’s actually been around for over 2 decades. But like any new technology it’s earliest avatars were crude examples of present day versions.

So, what is 3D printing? While the term 3D printing is widely adopted, what it actually refers to is a process called additive manufacturing. Since the principle involved is the same as that of an inkjet printer, the term ‘Printing’ was used to describe it.

Unlike conventional manufacturing, 3D printing is achieved using an additive process, where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes. Traditional techniques on the other hand use a subtractive process. Think sculptor chipping away at a block of stone to transform it into a bust.

3D printing can be as easy as downloading a file and clicking the “Print” button. Given the portability and ease of use, the implications of 3D printing are huge. Manufacturing of course will be greatly impacted. 3D printing has the ability to make objects with complex internal configurations that just wouldn’t be possible using traditional methods. No large factory required, or separate product assembly line. The same printer that creates an aircraft part can also create a replacement organ. What’s more, the printer can be kept close to the point of consumption so a huge range of logistical issues can be eliminated instantly.

And it isn’t just manufacturing that will be impacted. Industries as diverse as healthcare, aerospace, defense, retail, automobiles and yes even the communications industry are all affected. In fact 3D printing is already being used in a lot of these industries and rapid advances in technology are only increasing usage.

Business models are changing rapidly as well. Companies that allow you to upload a design and order a 3D print that is then shipped to you are already in operation. Others like Sculpteo go one step further. They’ll even market your product in the 3D space and send it to the buyer, with you collecting the profits from the sale.

Like all evolving technologies 3D printing still has some barriers to cross. Printing large volumes economically is still an issue. As is printing large objects. And a wider variety of printable material will need to be developed. But given the scale of benefits, it may be only a matter of time before you have a 3D printer sitting next to your current inkjet one. Enjoying its place in the sun.

SOURCE: CSC’s new report, 3D Printing and the Future of Manufacturing.

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