Most people see 3D printing as a new technology. But it actually came to life in the early 1980s. The first 3D-printed object? A tiny cup. Much has changed since then. Today, engineers are successfully printing 3D cars, five-story office buildings, firearms and even human tissue. Inarguably, 3D printing’s impact on the world as we know it is astounding.
We live in a world that demands instant access. Fast food. Email. Smartphones. On-demand programming and music. Printing in 3D is making it possible for organizations and consumers to have instant access to virtually anything. With that in mind, what does the future of 3D printing look like?
Noteworthy Emerging Uses
- Automotive and Industrial Manufacturing: consolidating parts into single units; building new production tooling; manufacturing spare parts and components.
- Aerospace: creating complex parts that traditional manufacturing can’t; controlling the density of parts and making them lighter.
- Pharma/Healthcare: preparing for surgery using exact anatomical models based on CT scans or MRIs; developing custom orthopedic implants and prosthetics; bioprinting live tissues for drug testing.
- Retail: developing customized products; printing spare or replacement parts.
Noteworthy Trends Resulting From 3D Printing
Here are some of the advancements 3D printing has made possible today:
According to Tech Crunch, metal printing is making it significantly faster to manufacture metal parts. We often associate 3D printing with plastics, but as the examples above indicate, a multitude of materials can be used to create objects. With increased speed of production comes faster turnaround times. In short, 3D printing will reshape the manufacturing industry, both in terms of pace and operation.
Prototyping used to take weeks or months. Now it can be done in a day. This means product engineers will have more time to experiment and innovate. It also will expand prototyping capacities. According to PwC, prototyping is the largest driver of 3D printing, with 28% of the 66% who have adopted this technology focusing all utilization on prototyping.
Medical and Pharma Miracles
The ability to manufacture human tissue for experimentation isn’t so far off. We’re talking about technology with the ability to outperform decades of cloning research. For the medical community, this translates into exact testing to produce more sophisticated drugs with fewer side effects. In one story featured on Reuters, a father provided a kidney to his toddler with the help of 3D printing (surgeons could “practice” the high-risk procedure on life-like models). Next up: Researchers are hard at work attempting to 3D print fully functional human organs. This advancement could completely eliminate the existence of donor lists and save about 119,000 lives in the United States alone.
Like anything else, 3D printing has raised some questions since its inception. Here are some of the main issues:
Feasibility is still questionable. 3D printers are still costly and require some training and technical ability to operate. Plus, consumers will need to purchase printing material, which poses a whole new obstacle.
Structural integrity isn’t guaranteed. Plastic is the most popular material used in 3D printing today. Plastic is versatile, but it’s not right for all types of products, especially those that require extreme durability. In other words, 3D printing is still largely limited in what it can produce.
Manufacturing employees could lose their jobs. This technology has the potential to take over positions currently filled by people. Just how extensive, however, has yet to be determined.
Lack of copyright protection. If and when 3D printing becomes available to consumers, protecting intellectual property will get seriously challenging.
Safety is a serious concern. When the world’s first 3D-printed gun made headlines a few years back, questions were raised about how society will police the private manufacturing of deadly weapons.
3D printing has certainly changed the way our world operates today. It brings us many cutting edge advancements, while at the same time raising some questions. This technology has the ability to influence and extensive range of products. Only time will tell where 3D printing will take us — and right now, the possibilities seem endless.