Era Of 3D Printing Begins

What used to be a tool for prototyping is becoming much more than that. Now what?

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3D printing has always been an interesting side technology. It’s now about to become a mainstream technology.

Until recently, the majority of applications for this technology have been limited for several reasons.

First, there simply isn’t enough history to bet the bank on commercial manufacturing using 3D printers. The initial patent for fused deposition modeling was issued in 1986, but it took nearly two decades for this technology to proliferate into the laboratory. For most of its history, that is where this technology has remained.

But 3D printing has been evolving rapidly over the past few years. That evolution has occurred so quickly that most companies are afraid to stake their future on it, at least so far. While carmakers already are creating 3D prototypes, and NASA has announced plans make replacement parts in outer space using 3D printers, these are still one or two steps away from commercial deployment.

That’s not to say there are not commercial benefits, of course. Ford reported it has printed more than 500,000 parts so far. The cost of a prototype is a few thousand dollars and can be done in days, while a using other means would take four to five months and cost $500,000.

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Fig. 1: 3D model of a Ford GT. Source: Ford Motor Co.

Second, for most of this technology’s life, the materials that could be used to create models looked like something that came out of a plastic toy soldier mold. Initial versions were crude. New versions are much more precise and sophisticated (See fig. 1). Moreover, printers now can handle multiple materials. They can print everything from a stainless-steel bicycle to a gourmet meal.

HuaSheng Tengda, a Beijing company, has printed a two-story, 4300 square-foot house that it claims can withstand an 8.0 earthquake. The house took 45 days to complete. The basic principle is that cement can be added to the coordinates that have been modeled. Smaller structures have been printed in as little as one day.

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Fig. 2: How it’s done — 3D printing with concrete. Source: 3D Printing Industry.

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Fig. 3: 3D House Printer. Source: 3D Printing Industry.

And in the food industry, this is just beginning to catch on.

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Fig. 4: Printed dessert. Source: 3dsystems.

Third, there isn’t enough data to understand the reliability of these printed devices and how the models will withstand the test of time. That is changing quickly. Over the next few years it will likely fuel explosive growth based on materials science, 3D modeling, and ultimately a variety of engineering disciplines, artificial intelligence and machine learning. It also will drive growth in the same kind of automation technology that has been used to enable Moore’s Law, with huge reductions in the cost of every type of manufacturing on the planet.

That leads to two big questions. First, just how versatile will this technology become for manufacturers? If a recipe is created by one engineering firm, can a company that makes a bicycle one day turn out solar panels the next? And second, will the expertise be in the factory, or in the recipe that is used by the factory?

3D printing could add a whole new dimension to what is considered IP, including whether patents can be created that cut across a wide swath of different industries. As 3D printing comes of age, it will no longer be just about the novelty of printing a plastic model. There are big issues that need to be addressed around this technology, and so far there seems to be scant attention paid to just how deep they will go and what will be affected along the way.

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