EVER SINCE the evolution of 3D movies, 3D TVs, 3D computer graphics and 3D productions, many have wondered how further this industry could evolve. Imagine a world where a person can design a product of his choice, choose its components, configure its size and color, and just click “print" complete the final product. The product can be literally anything: a hamburger you have been craving for days, a shirt you were lazy to get at the store the other day, a bicycle you always wanted to buy, or a simple gift for loved ones. All that is required is imagination and, of course, a 3D printer.
What is 3D printing?
3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is a process of making solid three-dimensional objects by combining distinctive layers of different materials such as plastic or rubber based on a digital model. First introduced by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp. in 1984, 3D printers have evolved to include new functions at more affordable prices, attracting attention from companies and the public.
Today, 3D printers are capable of using a larger variety of materials and chemicals in the production process, thus producing more items of different sizes, materials and colors. Additive manufacturing differs from other traditional manufacturing techniques in that it does not cut or drill the materials for use. Instead, 3D printers only print out the right amount of material according to the initial design, thereby reducing the production costs and the amount of resources that go to waste. Especially when it comes to mass production, 3D printers only need the initial design to start producing. Thus, different skills and stages are not necessary for production, requiring less time and energy than usual.
Such positive traits of 3D printing seem to have appealed to companies and individuals, drastically raising the demand for 3D printers within a short period of time. Countries such as China, for instance, introduced 3D printing as an alternative production method for energy reduction and resource preservation in the years to come. 3D printers are also currently used in a variety of fields including architecture, medicine, engineering, aerospace, fashion, and education, making more companies interested in its further development. According to a recent research by IDTechEx, the fields that will promote the highest growth in 3D printing by 2020 are expected to be medicine, dentistry, designer products, and architecture.
A 3D printed culture?
As 3D printers have literally become a revolution in the manufacturing field, experts do not hesitate to name them as the source of endless possibilities. In fact, additive manufacturing could very well create a distinct 3D printed culture of its own.
One of the most fascinating aspects of 3D printers is their capability to print foods and snacks of all sorts. In May 2013, NASA gave a $125,000 grant to Systems & Materials Research Corp. to develop a 3D printer that will create “nutritious and flavourful” food for space explorations. According to the company’s plan, the printers will be able to follow digital recipes to produce food that has the same structure, texture, smell and taste of the actual food we enjoy by adding nutritious powders. As a result, homesick astronauts, for example, will one day be able to receive cookie recipes from their beloved ones back at home and print them out for dessert anytime, anywhere.
Yet 3D printed food is seen to have more far-reaching benefits, such as providing food and healthcare to those in third world countries. The main causes of world poverty and hunger revolve around the problem of resource distribution. If at least one 3D printer is sent to a developing country, its inhabitants would be able to print out sufficient amounts of nutritious food and other everyday products for their citizens. According to reporter Tom Philpott, now that 3D printers can produce food with the right amount of nutritious elements, in the long run, they will be able to help solve the problem of hunger and starvation in third world countries.
Even more fascinating, however, is how 3D printers are being used in the medical field. This is the field that has been using additive manufacturing for the longest time, as experts saw the capability of 3D printers to produce better medical supplies than before. They go as far as to claim that “3D printers can save lives,” since they can create cheaper yet more accurate products for each distinct case. The accuracy of 3D printers is obtained by collecting each patient’s data overtime, and printing different supplies layer by layer, according to the needs of each patient. The final products are thus more reliable, as they are specifically designed for different individuals in different cases. Though additive manufacturing was mainly used in printing rather simple prosthetics such as artificial legs, jaws and implants, they have now advanced further and are capable of producing bionic ears and even 3D printed organs with more accuracy than ever before.
Another developing cultural aspect is 3D printed fashion. During the 2013 Paris Fashion Week, Dutch designers Rem D. Koolhass and Iris van Herpen unveiled 12 pairs of 3D printed shoes to be more than amazed with the results. It took them less than a week to produce 12 perfect pairs of shoes using 3D printers. In the words of Van Herpen, “3D printing has become a true creative-enabler for the fashion world. Designers are no longer limited with conventional manufacturing. 3D printers can now produce virtually anything they can imagine. For that reason, we feel that 3D printing will become more and more an integral part of fashion design curriculums.” Now anyone, whether a fashion designer or not, can print any fashion item from underwear to jewelry by simply designing it according to one’s personal taste. This shows how much 3D printing technology has developed and marks the beginning of a new era of production revolution on various fields from fashion to the aerospace industry.
Though there is much optimism about the future of 3D printing in such different fields, some points out the dangerous implications it can have when used with wrong intentions. These concerns came in response to the first 3D printed gun named the “liberator” that was introduced in the United States this May. The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also reacted to the issue by admitting that “limiting access may be impossible” when it comes to regulating 3D printed weapons.
Yet a number of experts argue that there is no need to worry about the dangers of 3D printed guns at least for now, since experiments showed that these guns have numerous weaknesses compared to the actual weapons that we conceive as threats. 3D printed guns, they claim, are very inaccurate. The gun, which is made of plastic, cannot handle the pressure of the bullet, and as a result, it is almost impossible to control the direction of the bullet towards the target. However, as product designs for 3D printers are freely uploaded and shared online, their evolution is only a matter of time and can lead to fatal copyright issues to more complex. According to New York council member M. Fidler, “these would be weapons without histories – potentially no identifying marks or sales histories. We wouldn’t even know these weapons exist, until they were fired.”
Current stage of the 3D printing business
Since 3D printing can influence a variety of markets starting from simple everyday products to automobile industries, a number of countries have started to invest in its development. The United States, for example, has shown great interest in the future development of the automobile industry through 3D printing. President Barack Obama claimed in his State of the Union speech that 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.” As follows, an R&D center named National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, is to be established this year in Ohio and is expected to lead the research on 3D printing.
Currently, automobile industries including Fiat are also using 3D printing as one of their main methods of production, and NASA recently launched 3D printed engine injectors which performed just as well as the traditionally produced ones. According to the EU’s future industrial policy, 3D printing is seen as an innovative way of production, and is named as one of the key variables in raising their GDP by the year 2020. Additionally, this July, a nano technology exhibition in Korea by Brule Korea Coop. introduced 3D printers to the Korean audience for the first time. As a result, online cafés and communities on 3D printing have been increasing to a great extent, and pre-orders of printers for family use - which are expected to be available in the Korean market by the end of 2013 - have already started.
* * *
Many experts seem skeptical about the future of 3D printing. Yet, from a positive perspective, the opportunities provided by 3D printing are endless - health, environment, fashion, nutrition, and engineering are only a few of the fields that could be revolutionized through 3D printing. Who knows, the critics of 3D printing today might be sitting on a 3D printed chair, eating a 3D printed hamburger in just a few years. All that is required is a little time.
Box 1: The evolution of 3D Printing
- 1984: The birth of 3D printing. Chuck Hull of Systems Corp. invents a printing process that enables solid 3D objects to be created from a picture. 3D printing is used to test different designs before going on to manufacturing the actual product.
- 1992: The first actual 3D printing machine is introduced.
- 1999: 3D printed organs open a new chapter in the medical industry. The first lab-grown organ is implanted to humans.
- 2002: The first working 3D kidney is made using printed organs and tissues
- 2008: Through selective laser sintering (SLS), 3D printers can use laser to fuse materials into 3D products. The first self-replicating printer that can print its own components is also created.
- 2011: The first 3D printed robotic aircraft is made at the University of Southampton, within 7 days along with the world’s first 3D printed car.
- 2013: Low-cost home 3D printers enter the marketplace.