The Evolution of 3D Printing
18 Apr 2016
3D printing (3DP) is emerging and causing significant technology changes that will affect the future. There are so many systems in development that it is impractical to discuss them all here. Simply put, people are trying to print everything.
From building custom DNA strands to five story buildings, 3DP is spreading into every corner of our world. Currently cement, ceramics, food, glass, metal, plastics, human tissue, conductive materials, flexible materials, DNA, electronics and more have already been printed. Like computers, 3DP will be interpreted by different people for countless uses and will have a very broad impact. Teams are working worldwide to make advancements at an astonishing pace, and one or more of these creations will certainly become part of our lives in the future. 3DP is so versatile; schools, hospitals, factories, small business, construction sites, homes and more will all be impacted. There is no way you can avoid it.
The phrase “3D printing” (building a part by printing it in layers) does not cover the magnitude of the technological evolution happening today. 3DP is a component of a larger shift to digital fabrication (Dfab). Other additive and subtractive processes (adding or removing material to form a part) like laser jet cutting, computer numerical controlled (CNC) machining, water jet cutting, digital embroidery and more are also changing manufacturing. To keep things simple, think of it this way- if the computer gave us digital brains, then Dfab is giving us digital hands. What we choose to put into those hands and how we use them is up to us – eg as a router, laser, 3D printer head, chocolate dispenser or cement extruder.
Although 3DP has been around for thirty years it is still in its infancy. The general public is starting to learn about it, but large corporations and schools have been quietly embracing it for years for their own specific needs. I have experienced this firsthand as I watched the toy industry change from top to bottom when Dfab was used to streamline the design and manufacturing processes. Today, all large product companies use 3DP, computer renderings, animation, computer aided design (CAD) engineering systems, digital graphics and other technologies to speed up development, improve quality, aid communication and lower the cost of many processes. New technology is expensive so only larger companies can risk buying untested tech. However, by using new tools one can find worthwhile opportunities. With companies like GE investing billions in 3DP, it seems clear they see the value. It logically follows that if business has found so many uses for 3DP, then the public will also find their own. As with other technologies, only time will reveal how the public will use this technology. As costs of systems continue to drop and as quality improves, more people will get their hands on 3D printers and their true power will be clearer.
3DP’s evolution is comparable to the early 1990s when computers were expanding beyond large expensive corporate systems into the mass market. During that time, I had a Commodore64 with 64K processing power, a large floppy disk to store my code, a black/white TV as a monitor, and the internet was accessible via a phone line. Similar to 3DP today, it was far from elegant. It was slow, had bad resolution, no user interface, and no standard system. During that time, everyone was so excited by the PC craze that Radio Shack, Atari, Texas Instruments, and IBM all tried making computers. The same is happening today as many rush to build consumer 3D printers. Many will try and fail, but ultimately the right tech at the right companies with time will grow new 3DP businesses into giants like Apple and/or reinvent others like HP. The amount of new information about 3DP is hard to comprehend, but keep in mind this is just the beginning of an amazing era.
What is 3D printing for? Whatever you do.
It is interesting that adults often ask what 3DP is for, since in my experience, children rarely do. Once you explain the concept to children, they often burst into a long speech about what they are going to print. For them it is clear- it is for what they want. They may not be able to print the horse they asked for just yet, but it is this single-minded perspective that spreads technology to new areas. One of the powers of 3DP is that it is being used in so many ways. Architects are figuring how to use it to create buildings, the jewelry industry is using it to improve their art, airline companies are working on printed engines to save fuel, the food industry is printing pizza, doctors are printing organs and implants, the fashion industry is creating couture runway looks, schools are using it to engage kids, and in my corner of the world, I am printing toys for big kids.
An example of how 3DP allowed an individual’s perspective to fulfill a greater need is the e-NABEL project. In short, someone 3D modelled and printed a cheap prosthetic hand for a friend’s child because they could. After the file was posted online, the cloud took over and now the hand is being printed for people worldwide. Consider that a single act of thoughtfulness plus a dose of cyber tech has helped so many. It again shows how the power of 3DP matched with a unique need has aided individuals in a very personal way. Not only are the hands helpful, but custom 3D printed Wolverine claws can be added to make a prosthesis arguably cooler than a real hand.
Besides the fact that many types of 3DP systems are developing, even within a common technology, various approaches are bringing different results due to so many minds working on it. This can be seen with 3DP cement. Even though the core technology is similar, projects worldwide are heading in unique directions. At USC in Los Angeles, Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis is working with a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to develop ways of printing on the moon, while in China, Winsun, a large scale construction company, has printed a 5 story house made largely from recycled site waste. Both projects start from differing points of view and skill sets, but thanks to the web sharing information globally, both bring new ideas to the 3D cement printing discussion.
Invigorating small & medium business
The benefits of 3DP for small business are starting to be seen. The US, Europe and Asia are all embracing it in their own ways. In the region below the American Great Lakes, many companies have suffered from the relocation of the auto industry. 3DP is bringing some of those jobs back and creating new ones. Companies like ExOne are using and selling 3D metal printing technologies to give new life to the metal foundry industry. They print complex molds using sand that are then sent to foundries to be poured using metal casting processes that have been used for decades. An experienced labour force is now back to work servicing the gas and oil industry because 3DP gave an old industry new life. I’ve seen the growth myself. On one of my latest work trips, instead of getting on a plane to fly overseas, I went to my small home town of Harrison, Ohio. While on the trip, I had the pleasure of meeting with Cincinnati Inc., the creator of Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM), a large format 3D printer that was used to print a car frame in 24 hours. The hundred-year-old company embraced 3D printing and now has one of the most exciting technologies on the planet. Given time, more companies will start to evolve like this and new 3DP focused ones will pop up all over.
With new technology comes new opportunities. In the same way Uber is re-inventing taxi service using technology, 3DP will lead to countless examples of smart people taking advantage of this new opportunity to improve the world around them, and possibly turn a profit doing so.
My ongoing robot cheetah project is based on exploring the fact that it is now possible with a single 3D file (sometimes modified) to create an item in many sizes and materials. This is something that would have been nearly impossible before, but now it can be done with ease. Given access to the right technology and funds, I can build a product - using a wide variety of materials - in sizes that range from nanometers to meters. To date, the design has been fabricated using CNC cut wood 48”, water-jet cut steel 36”, laser cut acrylic and wood 6”-30”, Stereo Lithography (SLA) .5”=4”, Selective Laser Sintered nylon (SLS) 1”-8”, Printed Stainless 2”-5”, FDM ABS plastic 2”-48”, and sintered stainless steel 14mm – 48mm (image and samples from Digital Metal by Hoganas). The smallest at 2mm can only be photographed with an electron microscope (image and samples from fixed-beam moving-sample (FBMS) by Nanoscribe). In the works is an item designed to stand 6’ tall using large format FDM. When fabrication becomes easier, innovation increases.
Another opportunity to explore is the ability to create items impossible to fabricate before, including working mechanisms that are printed fully assembled. Some 3DP systems can print interlocking parts - eg a chain might be printed with its links already connected. I have created vehicles and robots with springs, pivots, shock absorbers, gears, and rolling tires all printed fully assembled and functioning. I focus on the ability to create unusually complex items with no labor cost, which can be the largest part of a toy's price. This supports the idea that new technology brings new business.
What is ahead?
With 3DP technology being new to the masses and it spreading so rapidly, there is no way to predict the future precisely. While the world will not intrinsically change, it is reasonable that all of our lives will be affected as new products and services make their way onto the market. Many changes will be invisible, like 3DP fixtures used in factories. Some changes will be more obvious like tech jobs and 3DP shops in malls. However, some could affect us more directly – eg patient specific 3DP surgical implants or airplane parts.
With so much new technology emerging and unseen possibilities, how can one insure the future? When something is new, by definition there is no way to know what will happen over time. However, like all innovation, a general pattern will be followed. There will be change and problems. Some industries will shrink or disappear, but new ones will emerge. There will be landmark lawsuits, but in the end, justice will be served and safety systems will be established. There will be issues as a few thieves and bad business decisions cause problems, but in the end, the total effect will be largely positive.
On a basic level, 3DP and Dfab are still considered manufacturing - they just use new tools. 3DP metal seems miraculous, but it is just another metal part made from familiar materials that can be qualified and tested. As mentioned before, some of the processes incorporate old technology, so some metal parts will be created using time tested processes. Nothing critical has changed.
The biggest concerns to watch in the near term are intellectual property rights (IP), chemistry, and product liability. All are challenging, but none are insurmountable.
IP: There is a fear that design files will be stolen or parts scanned, thus, IP will become impossible to protect. Certainly new guidelines need to be established for 3DP IP rights, but similar to iTunes destroying Napster, good design and smart business will trump black-market issues.
Chemistry: Many 3DP technologies rely on new materials. However, they are similar to materials used commonly today. Ultraviolet light-cured resins are new in 3D printers, but they have been used for years in the dental industry. ABS plastic has been used in many FDM printers, and has been used safely in kids' toys for decades. Although chemistry should be watched closely, there is nothing that should prevent its wide use in 3DP.
Product Liability: Since 3DP technology blurs the edge of responsibility, new standards need to be established to deal with numerous questions at hand. For example, who is responsible when a third party printing service ships a faulty part directly to a customer? Is it the designer or the printer? What if a design file is sold and printed using a home printer? Who is responsible for quality then? It is uncertain how it will be done, but safety standards for 3DP items and online components will need to be developed to deal with surrounding issues.
An amazing time
Because of 3DP, it has never been a better time to be an inventor. New 3DP tools and web access give entrepreneurs the ability to create like never before.
Although there are issues to be worked out and the technology is still many years from being easy for anyone to use, 3DP is an amazing technology that will improve many things. The technology will allow companies to focus more directly on their clients while making profits possible on a smaller scale. Its versatility will speed up its adoption around the world. 3DP will be part of the future, and the only question is how will you use it?
See also the event "Expert Forum on 3-D printing", which took place at the Centre for Global Dialogue in September 2015.
See also the summary of the event.