Hailed by ‘The Economist’ as catalyst of ‘the third industrial revolution’, 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, looks set to have a significant impact on manufacturing in the near future. What exactly is this technology, touted as the ‘next revolution in manufacturing’?
3D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object of almost any shape with the use of a digital model. First, a virtual blueprint is created using computer software, which is then fed into a specialised machine, i.e. a ‘printer’. The printer builds the model through an ‘additive’ process, laying down layers of material sequentially and binding them together in a succession of cross-sections. The technique stands in contrast to traditional manufacturing, which typically involves the sculpting of materials through ‘subtractive’ techniques such as drilling or carving. First developed in the 60s and 70s, additive manufacturing has seen increasing use over the past two decades. Basic printing machines such as ‘RepRap’ and ‘[email protected]’ have become available and affordable enough to allow hobbyists to produce small models at home.
However, the technology’s most notable application has been in prototyping, the process of building samples of a product to test design. Traditionally, prototyping required the same machinery as that used in mass production, making it a lengthy and expensive process. A 3D printer, on the other hand, can easily make objects of virtually any shape. The materials that can be used in 3D printing are as diverse as sand and polymers, leading to its adoption for prototyping purposes in industries ranging from architecture and automotive engineering to jewellery and toy production. Furthermore, the integration of modelling software allows for quick alterations of design, saving time and cutting costs. All in all, these features mean lower costs and faster development, significantly reducing time to market for many companies. It is perhaps unsurprising that the term ‘3D printing’ has become virtually synonymous with ‘rapid prototyping’.
Nonetheless, the label ‘rapid prototyping’ is quickly becoming obsolete as new, bolder uses for the technology are being developed. Sciaky, a Chicago company specialising in additive manufacturing, has begun to use the technology to make large parts of fighter jets, including titanium wing supports and jet engines. Large corporations such as GE have similarly begun to adopt the technology in some heavy production processes. For these manufacturers, the benefits of additive manufacturing are primarily twofold: firstly, it bypasses the wastefulness of conventional production processes, in which large amounts of raw material are used to produce comparatively smaller parts. Secondly, 3D printing is free from the geometrical restrictions of conventional techniques, allowing engineers to make lighter, more energy-efficient parts with the same mechanical properties as conventionally manufactured ones.
Uses for 3D printing are extending to other sectors as well. Biomedical engineers have taken advantage of the technology to produce precisely detailed, personalised prosthetic body parts such as dental implants. These printed products are expected to capture a significant portion of the medical implant market in the near future. Some ambitious engineers go as far as to envision a future where every household has a 3D printer. In this future, ordinary consumers would be able to purchase blueprints and print anything from shoes to chocolate in their own homes.
On the flipside, however, is the anticipation that the adoption of additive techniques will have important repercussions for manufacturing workplaces. The highly mechanised process of 3D printing will render many labour-intensive positions currently held by uneducated workers redundant. In their place, educated technicians will be hired to manage the complex automated procedures of the additive manufacturing process. This is undoubtedly an issue that will generate controversy in the future, but proponents argue that 3D printing is simply the next step in the continual process of machines replacing workers as advances in technology are made. Indeed, some analysts highlight the importance of this transition for developed economies in particular. They note that, in comparison to the developing world, educated workers are in abundance in the developed world. For developed countries, embracing innovations such as 3D printing, which are not always feasible for overseas competitors, is unmistakeably important in maintaining (or re-establishing) competitiveness.
The importance of 3D printing as a manufacturing technique is becoming increasingly apparent. In his 2013, second term State of the Union address, Obama described 3D printing as ‘having the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything’. His championing of the launch of a network of 15 additive manufacturing hubs across America has renewed optimism in proponents of the technology. At the same time, with new uses for the technology found every year, concerns have been raised about its potential exploitability for less responsible uses, particularly weapons production. The threat is real enough for the US government to issue a ban on the online publication for gun blueprints that may be used by amateur owners of 3D printers. However, the potential benefits of this ‘revolutionary’ new technology are so far greatly outweighing the risks, and more widespread adoption is looking more and more inevitable.