The Future of 3D Printing Technology
Over the last five years, 3D printing has developed from a niche scientific pursuit that seemed impossible outside of sci-fi movies into a reality for technologists and manufacturers around the world.
While 3D printing is undoubtedly high-tech, the basics of 3D printing technology are remarkably simple. Today’s most advanced 3D printers place layers of plastic resin, slowly and gradually, to create a usable physical object.
3D printers have been used to create working camera lenses, iPad stands and even a functional rifle. Remember Skyfall? The beautiful Aston Martin DB5 destroyed at the film’s climax was itself a purpose-built model made using a 3D printer.
While many of the objects created using 3D printers so far have been decorative or fun, 3D printing is becoming an important technology in many industries. Recently, ISS Astronauts created replacement space station parts using a 3D printer.
3D printing, then, is clearly here to stay. But aside from its value for astronauts and engineers, what value does today’s (and tomorrow’s) 3D printing technology have for businesses?
The growth of rapid, localized manufacturing
No other industry stands to be as shaken by 3D printing as manufacturing. One of the generally agreed-upon rules of manufacturing is that manufacturing is possible only in countries or regions in which labor is inexpensive.
From consumer electronics to automotive parts, children’s toys and more, many of the items we purchase in retail stores have been manufactured overseas, usually in countries such as China where labor is cheap and plentiful.
3D printing could, should it become mainstream technology, bring manufacturing into people’s offices, workplaces and living rooms. The huge factories we currently associate with manufacturing could, in many cases, be replaced by people’s homes.
The effect of such a development could be enormous, affecting not just the global manufacturing sector but the transportation, fulfillment and logistics sectors that depend on distributed, globalized manufacturing output.
In some industries, rapid and localized manufacturing is already a reality. During a 2013 tour of the 3D Systems plant in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Smithsonian writer Elizabeth Royte saw precise medical scaffolds created in front of her eyes.
The rise of customizable consumer products
Although consumer goods cater to almost all of our needs, they all share a common downside: they’re generic, mass produced and unable to be customized beyond the superficial.
The entertainment unit your television sits atop is identical to the tens, and possibly hundreds of thousands of others made in the same factory. The notebook you work on is identical to the hundreds of thousands of others produced by its manufacturer.
Lack of customization – beyond small, widely available optional extras – is a fact of life that consumers have gotten used to. It’s also something that 3D printing has the potential to turn into a relic of 20th century manufacturing.
In a Harvard Business Review feature on 3D printing, Richard A. D’Aveni noted that one of the biggest implications of 3D printing is that goods will be “infinitely more customized, because altering them won’t require retooling.”
Instead of requiring a new design, new materials and an entirely new manufacturing run, making changes to a product or object’s design will be as simple as adjusting its software instructions – something any qualified engineer can do.
Along with revolutionizing the world’s manufacturing industry and turning the old model of centralized labor and production on its head, 3D printing could lead to an incredible new rise in customization and creativity in product design.
The future of 3D printing technology
While mass market 3D printers may be years away – even today’s basic models cost over $1,000 – their potential to revolutionize manufacturing and design is very real.
From allowing International Space Station astronauts to print replacement parts in orbit to completely revolutionizing many companies’ supply chains, 3D printing has the power to change everything about the way we view design and manufacturing.