With chatter near constant about how 3D printing is going to turn industry as we know it on its head, it is not hard to find a bitterly fought debate about the technology online. For every devotee gushing about future consumers printing their own products there is a sceptic pointing to the costliness of the strongest materials. For every casual observer whose jaw dropped at the news of printable human organs there is an anxious onlooker bringing up the awkward issue of 3D rifles.
The debates surrounding 3D printing are, in many ways, essential to its development. Yet, before you pick a side and dive into the affray, it is worth knowing what the technology is actually all about. In other words, you need an answer to the question: what is 3D printing?
3D printing is one of the few examples of a successful additive manufacturing process. Traditionally, manufacturing products is a subtractive procedure – you begin with a piece of material, say a large sheet of metal, then reduce its size and alter its shape by slicing away parts of it in order to create a finished item, say the frame of an automobile. Additive manufacturing works the opposite way. You begin with nothing then add the material in the specific shape until you have your intended product.
Though machines vary, the basic 3D printer will consist of an extruder, through which the heated material is transferred to a platform below. The point of the extruder will make a series of passes, adding layer upon layer until the object is created. Those passes will match a blueprinted image of the object, usually created using computer aided design or some other form of digital modelling software. For more information on the 3D printing process, check out our How Does 3D Printing Work? guide.
At present around 30 companies have established themselves as manufacturers of industrial level 3D printers, while the number of manufacturers of smaller desktop models is also growing. On the whole, the industry is looking extremely healthy, as stock prices increase with steady pace for most of the big players. Stratasys, whose purchase of MakerBot Industries in June makes it one of the most powerful presences in the 3D landscape, is boasting share prices 50% up on those from last year, while its annual profits are up 60%. These figures are typical of a very muscular looking sector. The global market for 3D print reached $2.2 billion in 2012, which marks a 28% increase on 2011. Amongst the other big names are ExOne, 3D Systems and Shapeways.
Perhaps one of the most interesting developments so far, however, was the release of the Velleman K8200, the very first 3D printer to be made available from a store on the UK high street. At just £700 it’s an extremely affordable piece of kit, good for a hobbyist though too small to satisfy anybody with industrial or professional ambitions.
All of which bodes well for the future of 3D printing. Yet that is not to say there aren’t big risks for anybody looking to invest. Currently there is an almost impossible level of expectation upon the technology. While many in the mainstream media look upon 3D printing as the technology that can do everything, clearing up what it is that makes 3D printing genuinely useful may be urgently required. Otherwise the widespread disappointment caused when the limitations of the technology become known to the wider public could cause a costly backlash against the industry.
So how is it used?
Over the past twelve months or so, 3D print services seem to have been locked in a battle to see who could put the technology to the most headline-worthy use. The result has been a year of quite remarkable tech news, with tales of lunar rocks, replacement jaw and hip bones, prosthetic animal limbs, marching bio-bots, musical instruments, designer clothes and firearms all appearing, as if from thin air, on a 3D printer’s building plate.
NASA, in particular, has been at the centre of many of the most interesting developments in the area, from the aforementioned lunar rocks that might one day make the building of a space station on the moon a possibility, to the printing of food for astronauts and the creation of rocket engine parts. The ability to create personalised products, precise for the consumer, makes the technology a very exciting one for the medical community as things like hearing aids or replacements body parts can be created to fit a specific person’s body. The prospect of such deep customisation has been jumped upon by big name brands such as Nokia, who are offering their customers made-to-order 3D printed phone cases.
Then, of course, there are the print services themselves, companies that specialise in printing from the blueprints created by independent designers or companies. This is one of the areas where 3D printing is most valuable, allowing ambitious inventors or forward thinking businesses to create previously impossible prototypes that, if successful, can then be put into mass production by traditional, subtractive means.
All of this, however, is just the beginning of the 3D printing story. In truth, the make or break question that hangs above 3D printing is ‘how will it be used in the future?’
So…how will it be used?
The above stories all underline a basic truth about the technology: that with skilfully designed digital blueprints and a powerful enough 3D printer, you really can manufacture an endless variety of products from the same source. This raises a very interesting possibility: a global manufacturing industry that entirely removes factors such as transport costs from its budget.
It has also lead many in the mainstream press, not to mention the President of the United States, to reason that 3D printing is changing the world as we know it. A future in which every single one of our household items, from the pots and pans in our kitchens to the clothes in our wardrobe, will come from our own 3D printer is being widely predicted.
Yet such a viewpoint does not take into account some of the other basic truths regarding 3D printing. Truths such as the cost of high quality raw materials, which is exorbitant, and the time it takes to print products, which is long. These two factors make 3D printing as part of a mass production enterprise pointless. With no economy of scale, the expense of creating items in bulk is far too high. So, while it may make the production of some products cheaper for consumers, in the main the idea of additive manufacturing being an affordable alternative to subtractive processes is a false one. For most consumers, simply walking to the shop and buying a mass produced product will be quicker, simpler and cheaper than printing their own one at home.
What the future of 3D printing is much more likely to be is products that are built to order, such as the prototype for a new invention or something that needs to be entirely personalised – like the medical and aeronautics items mentioned earlier. The other possible outlet for 3D printing is rapid manufacturing – creating a small number of components for larger machines at a relatively quick pace, though there are still doubts about how efficient additive manufacturing will be for this purpose.
3D printing is a revolutionary process that will, one way or another, have a profound effect on the way we manufacture various items. Yet the Star Trek-like beaming in of products and food may be much further in the future than many would have you believe, if it comes to pass at all. The message is not so much ‘don’t believe the hype’ as much as ‘be careful about which hype you believe.’