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Is 3D Printing The Next Industrial Revolution?

17/11/2013
A typical 3D printer

A typical 3D printer

3D printing is nothing new and has, in fact, been around for a rather long time.  But until recent years the technology has been very large and bulky, restricted mainly to factories and design labs and been very costly.  All that has started to change, and now there is talk of a new Industrial Revolution.  My own view is that we are quite a few years away from that, but the inescapable truth is that 3D printing is here to stay and really is set to revolutionise if not completely destabilise conventional supply channels.

In industry, 3D printing uses a lot of materials, from plastics to light metals. The latest materials also include conductive, where electrical and electronic circuits may be incorporated into the finished product like never before.  And it is this technology that has become commoditised to the point where it has  entered people’s homes.  Small scale at first, to be sure, but it is not unreasonable to expect to see the 3D printer become as ubiquitous as the washing machine or television in time to come. Why is that then?  In a word, affordability.

The 3D printer, similar to the one pictured above, has reached and in some cases broken through the £1,000 level and, while being out of the psychological price reach of  perhaps many people, it is an important milestone.  It means that the less serious hobbyist, the early adopter, the technologically curious will be inclined to buy one to use.  And that is an important distinction from the experimenter or the colloquial geek who typically always lives on the bleeding edge of technology.  This individual will be using a 3D printer to manufacture component parts or entire designs, some of which they may have created themselves.  The “user” will instead want to simply produce items from readily available designs.

And so, today already, 3D printing does not require any design talent or flair. So much is already freely available, yes for free, on websites such as Thingiverse.com and many others.   Designs on these websites can be simply downloaded using a regular personal computer (Windows, Apple, Linux) and then sent by USB or an SD card to a 3D printer for manufacture. Several hours later the finished item is sitting on the printer waiting to be removed.

Impossible and intriguing designs are capable of bring 3D printed in a single run, where conventional manufacturing techniques would require manual assembly, and thus cost. To a 3D printer such designs are no challenge at all. Even moving parts.

impossible

All manner of goods can be printed, ranging from components, whole parts, jewellery, clothing. The limit appears to be only one’s imagination.  And with the newer multi-filament 3D printers colours and materials may be blended into exciting designs.

Domestic 3D printing has come of age.

Where are we now?

I would place domestic 3D printing roughly at where the first domestic videotape recorders were back in the early 1970s.  In that time the very notion of self-recording TV programmes off the air was very novel in itself. Time shifting was unthinkable but followed very rapidly.  And I see the same for 3D printing, niche and novel right now, but very definitely impinging upon the public’s awareness. Not the least through sensationalist news such as 3D gun manufacture and the furore that caused. But also through the very much more benevolent use such as printing new bone structures to be used in cosmetic repair.  Recently a man had half his face reconstructed using 3D structures that would have been very difficult and extremely expensive to produce. Now such manufacture is reduced to a near triviality using devices such as the above and low to no cost software.  Truly revolutionary.

Where to next then?

The next step to bringing the 3D printer into the average home is the construction of the actual device itself.  Even the latest and greatest designs are exciting to the inclined but unappealing to the average person. Just showing my other half the printer above drew a “And where do you think you’ll be putting that?” comment. There was no evidence of shared excitement at the prospect.  No, to enter the average household the physical design of the 3D printer has got to follow domestic conventions today.

The raw material also has to evolve. Currently the construction “filament” for domestic 3D printers are limited to certain plastics, both fossil fuel based and organic. Future machines will have to incorporate metals, conductors and even colours.  And the supply of the raw material will have to be worked out. Could it be piped to homes as Gas and Electricity are today?  That alone would represent a massive infrastructure change.

Clearly there are some significant logistics to be solved. But the future of domestic 3D printing in one form or another is assured. And the state of the art today is such that making the step up to home 3D printing is now completely viable and generally affordable.

Will you be take the step up to self-manufacture?

Credits:

Kolobus: http://kolobus.co.uk/
Makerbot Thingiverse: http://www.thingiverse.com/

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