The sudden buzz about 3D printing and its potential has triggered a deafening din in the media and elsewhere. Is all the hype realistic, especially since the ability to print objects made of plastics and various other materials has been around for about a decade? Will this prove a transformative technology? Will it revolutionize manufacturing or even medicine?
Already, 3D printing has been refined to the point where digital models can be duplicated into physical prototypes or production parts that closely resemble mass-produced products in looks and function. And prices of 3D printers have declined substantially in the past five years, to as low as $1,000 from $400,000 five years ago.
As a result, myriad industries â€“ from automotive (which already created the first 3D printed car) and aerospace to footwear and jewelry â€“ have embraced 3D printing that creates objects by laying down successive layers of materials. The Wohlers Report, an annual in-depth study of the advances in additive manufacturing technologies and applications, estimates 3D printing will grow to become a $5.2 billion industry by 2020, up from $1.3 billion last year.
Indeed, the digital age is providing companies of all sizes â€“ as well as individuals â€“ with the means to design and make a product relatively inexpensively. In turn, these tools are transforming the role of the traditional factory. Soon â€“ really â€“ it will be possible to print out products at home ranging from appliance parts to shoes. You will be able to have that dishwasher part made just for you instantly. This promises to empower a new wave of design and customization fueled by our personal taste and imagination.
Already, Nike with its Nike iD services lets customers personalize and design their own Nike merchandise, down to their favorite colors and materials. Amsterdam-based Freedom of Creation, renowned for its lighting designs, has 3D-printed fixtures gracing the interiors of luxury hotels around the world. Canada-based Weatherhaven, which supplies portable shelters, digitally explores and validates its custom designs without having to build physical prototypes. This saves the company up to $100,000 per shelter. As a result, yesterdayâ€™s factory is evolving into a global community of custom design and personal fabrication services. And manufacturers are creatively embracing the changes.
To be sure, the most revolutionary advances for 3D printing are probably a decade or more away. But as 3D printers continue to drop in price, much like color printer prices have fallen, it will not be long before the average tech-savvy household can afford a 3D printer. When that occurs, the dreams of inventors and entrepreneurs will be realized. They simply will build a 3D model of their breakthrough idea on their computer and click â€œprint.â€
Furthermore, they likely will produce final products, not just prototypes; 20 percent of 3D â€œprintsâ€ are final products today, and analysts estimate that percentage will climb to 50 percent within the next decade.
Already, the boundaries of 3D technology are widening substantially with the 3D printed car, the two-seat Urbee created by KOR EcoLogic of Canada. All of its body parts were made using 3D printers, including its glass panels. Scientists in Bristol, England, printed a fully functional bicycle in March and three months later, they printed a bikini, showing how easy it is to print unique products with the same manufacturing process.
This explains why the medical profession foresees a time when more sophisticated 3D printing will produce replacement organs or drug therapies. There is little question that the evolution of this transformative technology promises to ignite a new era of custom manufacturing.