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3D Printing Technology

3D Printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the creation of a three-dimensional object based on a live model or data from an electronic source, in a layer-by-layer process. The layers are then fused together to create shapes and objects of varying sizes and complexity. It is a new method of industrial manufacturing which has become a hot topic of conversation in the recent years, given its ability to disrupt traditional retail models, with consumers now being enabled to “print” their own products in a highly personalized manner. Though the technology has existed for decades, it was never available in the mainstream due to the expensive and highly technical nature of the machines that carried out the process, and has only fallen into the limelight in recent years. It was a few open-source projects developed by scientific and educational groups that first gave the impetus to commercial 3D printing. The benefits of early 3D printing were the creation of rapid prototypes, data visualization, and specialized manufacturing. With the commercialization of the technology, the price of 3D printers has dropped drastically, making it easily affordable and available for regular consumers.

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Today, applications of 3D printing technology are being discovered in almost every industry, spurred by innovation and technological progress. The market for 3D printing is slated to be valued at $16.2 billion worldwide in 2018, with enormous market growth potential due to the falling prices of the machines, an increasingly broader range of applications, and the rapid technological advancement that is being made with the process technology.

Process Technology of 3D Printers

The process of 3D printing is based on the principle of stereolithography, a method of production whereby three-dimensional objects are designed using the specifications of their cross-sections. This process was patented in 1984 by Charles W. Hull, and forms the basis of 3D printing technology as it is known today. Though the process of manufacturing components was initially subtractive, that is, it involved the removal of layers of material to create a prototype, by the early 2000s, additive manufacturing technology had matured, and was soon being used for production of industrial parts. By 2010 additive manufacturing was more prevalent, and gave rise to the concept of 3D printing, which also subscribed to the principle that objects could be created mechanically, layer by layer. 3D printed objects are designed with the help of printable models that can be generated in the form of an electronic file, or by means of a 3D scanner. Similar to the art of sculpting, digital data is collected on the shape of a real object, and a 3D model can then be created. Though the process seems simple in theory, the complexity of its actual execution resulted in the formation of several 3D printing agencies and companies which now manufacture these parts for everyday consumers. The materials used for 3D printing have become more diverse over the years, ranging from plastics and polymers, to rubber, ceramics, metals, and stone. Consecutive layers of materials are printed to create the object’s cross section, and fused together in the final shape, with the final step of finishing. This method allows a great deal of flexibility in object design. Different 3D printers may use different resolutions and thickness, depending on the object to be created. The process also varies in time, depending on the complexity of the object to be created, though the speed of 3D printing has increased dramatically, which is one of the driving factors behind its exponentially growing popularity.

Types of 3D Printing Technologies

Depending on the material and process required to create an object, there are several different kinds of 3D printing technologies available. For example, the process may involve the softening of layers of material to achieve a certain shape. The technologies that can be used in this case are selective laser melting, or fused deposition modeling. Fused deposition modeling allows the creation of tiny pieces of liquid material, which then solidify almost immediately. Laminated manufacturing, another type of 3D printing, involves the cutting of different cross-sectional layers, which are then fused together to create a final product. Objects that require a more granular approach can be created using electron-beam melting, or selective-heat sintering. Sintering is the process of creating an object by the use of extreme heat or pressure, without allowing it to melt. Finally, the original application of 3D printing, stereolithography allows the creation of objects layer by layer using a fully melted liquid material, which is then exposed to light to allow it to harden. While fused deposition modeling is more suitable for softer materials like clays and rubbers, granular modeling is more prevalently used for materials like alloys and metals. The precision that is offered by the stereolithographic process makes it ideal for objects that have a greater degree of complexity in design.

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An example of stereolithography.

Industrial Applications of 3D Printing Technology

Though the consumer use of 3D printing technology is likely to disrupt traditional retail models, the industrial applications of 3D printing also holds a great potential for innovation in stagnating industries. For example, an American company known as Stratasys has successfully implemented 3D printing technology in industries such as agriculture, manufacturing and tooling, architecture, and renewable energy. Even the aerospace and defense industry have adopted this technology for the design of new machines, drones and the repair of old parts, among other applications. The main benefits that 3D printing technology offers industrial manufacturers are rapid prototyping, rapid manufacturing, mass customization and mass production. For example, the new model of the Chevrolet Malibu in 2014 made use of rapid prototyping technology to implement design changes on the interiors of the car, a method that proved both cost efficient and time efficient for General Motors. A well-known instance of mass customization using 3D printing technology was Nike’s use of selective laser sintering technology to design a custom made football cleat that helped to enhance the wearer’s athletic performance. The ability of 3D printing to rapidly create objects of different shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of complexity is what makes it so attractive to industries in which mass manufacturing lacks a degree of differentiation that could be an important cost driver.

3D Printing Technology : Open Source Development

The domestic use of 3D printing technology has compounded over the years as a result of the affordability of the machines. Machines that once cost more than $20,000 are now available for under $1,000. Several open source 3D printing projects have been launched, which ironically enable home users to print their own 3D printers. The first initiative in the domestic space was taken by RepRap (short for Replicating Rapid Prototyper), a group of British educationists who saw the potential of 3D printing technology as a mass production tool. They designed a 3D printer which could easily replicate most of its components, which would give the user the ability to “print a printer”. This could then be used to create other everyday household objects, based on electronically available designs. The open source nature of the project, however, made it an easy target for competitors, and resulted in the creation of a marketplace for 3D printers, which would drive a trend of hyper-customization, as objects could now be created as per individual specifications. Although the vast majority of the people who use 3D printing technology is still restricted to the early adopters and the hacker community, several innovations such as the 3D Printing Pen have made the technology more well known and accessible to the public. The additional benefits of reduced material wastage and environmental friendliness have also struck a chord with the people in favor of 3D printing.

Consumer Applications of 3D Printing Technology

As consumers grow more and more comfortable with 3D printing technology, and realize its innate benefit of rapid customization, its applications in domestic use too, are becoming more and more varied and sophisticated. From art projects, to consumer retail products, even to medical technology, 3D printing is now being adopted by almost every industry. Projects are founded through crowd sourcing platforms as well as venture capitalists, with a series of innovations seeing great success in the commercial market. While initial projects were rudimentary and used to create basic tools and objects, now 3D printed prototypes, even in everyday use have become more complex. There are several 3D printing public events, forums, and shows, where the ingenuity of 3D printing innovators is showcased.

Fashion and Design

In the industry where customization is king, 3D printing offers a world of potential for designers to take advantage of its speed and precision. Not only can 3D printing be used to create machines that can be used to weave fabrics, knit, and sew, but also has it been seen in the actual design process of retail clothing. While some fashion designers fear the advent of 3D printing as a production technology, as it enables imitation of their haute couture, others have embraced it, and actually spread designs among consumers. However, certain companies, such as Victoria’s Secret, have adopted it, even used it to showcase their creations in fashion shows and public events. In the related market for customized accessories, there have been several sunglass manufacturers who have tried to adopt this process technology, designing custom frames and lenses for their customers.

Medicines and Biotechnology

3D printing has also achieved remarkable progress in the field of tissue regeneration, organ manufacturing, and customized body part manufacturing. The process is more complex in this case, with live cell tissue being fused into a gel medium that then grows into the desired shape. The potential of this technology is vast for regenerative medicinal applications. 3D printing is enabling the creation of customized body parts for the purpose of reparation. For example, a lower jaw component was recently successfully implanted into a Dutch patient. Since parts are highly customizable at a cheap cost, the production process is of great help to surgeons and scientists who are constantly looking for breakthroughs in the medical sphere. 3D printing technology has remarkably been used in the production of prosthetic limbs and sensory aids for physically impaired patients as well.

Food

The potential of 3D printing technology is also being stretched with its application to the food and beverage industry. In fact, NASA has sponsored a project which allows its astronauts to digitally “print” food in space. While other applications include the design of food related machinery, such as coffee makers and chocolate moulds, some other interesting applications have also been approached by other companies. The Nestle Institute of Health Sciences, for instance, has proposed a project which would involve customized 3D printed food to suit the nutritional and health data available on an individual. Using complex food science theories such as molecular gastronomy, it has now even become possible to print fruit and other organic matter, although this is a matter of dispute among the critics of 3D printing technology

3D Printing and Education

The science behind 3D printing has begun to creep into the classrooms of the world, with students being allowed to use the technology to develop prototypes, models and artifacts for study. In the fields of architecture, art, and even medicine, 3D printing models are used more and more to allow students to have a more hands-on educational experience. There have also been several publicized instances of 3D printing enabling the learning and development of special needs students. Some well-known universities and educational institutions have commissioned multi-million dollar projects to enable students to explore the applications of this technology. In a recent move, the government of China has sanctioned a $500 million grant towards the development of 10 national 3D printing development institutes, where its vast potential can be unlocked. Developments in the field of 3D printing are widely covered by the mass media and on the internet, which allow more and more users to understand what their machines can be used for. Major 3D printing forums, such as the 3D Printshow in London, give innovators the platform to broadcast their knowledge and applications. The increasing visibility of the technology has given it a sort of word-of-mouth virality that is slowly being picked up on by the media and corporations, adding to the pool of innovations that already surround the technology.

Criticisms and Concerns

As with any popular topic of discussion, 3D printing is viewed as both, a boon and a bane. Some of the main arguments against the technology are intellectual property breaches, the limited affordability, security and social concerns, and the relative infancy of the market. For one, the ability to cheaply reproduce any object, no matter how specific, as long as one can obtain the design, raises huge concerns for manufacturers of products that are under copyright and trademark protection. Regulation of these patents would become even harder if the technology were to become prevalent among home users, who could download designs off the open-source internet. Another huge concern that has been voiced multiple times is the negative social aspect of 3D printing. For example, a US based 3D printing manufacturer called Defense Distributed recently announced their intention to make publicly available the design for a working plastic gun, which could be replicated by anyone with a 3D printer. This raises huge security concerns in the country, as the number of printers distributed and sold cannot yet be effectively regulated.

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Note that this gun is from a manufacturer, as the present commercially available 3D printing technology (written 2014) has not yet achieved this level of durability.

Other criticisms of 3D printing technology include the artificial claim that “anyone can produce anything affordably”, since certain raw materials, expertise, and the technology itself is required to do this, and may be more difficult than it seems to obtain. The main concern however, is that 3D printing technology is yet to find a universally accepted application that meets a vast need. The industry is still in its nascent phase and is struggling to find a foothold in the mass acceptance market, but since its applications are still mostly untapped and the ones that have been discovered, fragmented, it remains to be seen whether it will ever make a mainstream appearance in manufacturing.

Social Effects

The social impact of 3D printing, if it ever gets adopted in the mainstream production process, will be considerable. Not only will it disrupt traditional retail and distribution models, but on a more social level can cause the breakdown of certain conventions and relationships as they are known in the world today. Behaviorists and social commentators have, for example, raised concerns that it could erode the balance created by globalization, as it would become unnecessary to import and export, given the ability to produce cheaply within a nation. Though the 3D printing community has remained mostly open and communicative, with a free flow of information, the increased need for regulation might restrict the open-source sharing platform on which it is currently based. The implications of easy imitability for dangerous products, such as weapons and firearms, counterfeited money, and genetically modified organic matter, is also another serious social implication. 3D printing may also have an effect on the labor market, since the increased automation with which customization can be managed at the point of delivery to the consumer will make specialized expertise and staff less relevant in the future.

Future Applications of 3D Printing Technology

With the vast potential of 3D printing technology to create almost any object, the limits are boundless. 3D printing is not only set to disrupt the traditional model of manufacturing, but create an entirely new one. It’s applications in fields such as science and medicine are already bounds beyond what the technology was initially intended for, and the technology is growing exponentially every day. As more and more corporations and companies rush to get into the race for customized mass production, the number of individual and household users is also increased by leaps and bounds. The potential market for 3D printing is touted to grow at 500% for the next five years, as per a report by CNBC. The most significant change that will be brought about by this technology is democratic design – the option to choose and customize all kinds of products at an extremely person level, in a cost effective and efficient manner. Though 3D printing is yet to gain mass appeal and find a universally accepted application, it is undeniable that its advantages over cheap mass production are hard to compete with. Supply chains are going to be disrupted, with a reduced need for outsourcing and imports, which could either be a big deterrent to globalization, or allow for discoveries of new ways in which sharing across borders could become even easier. In either case, 3D printing is here to stay, and while the naysayers may question its practicality, what seems clear to a lot of its proponents is that it is not a technology for the world of today, but one for the future.

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