Whether you choose to call it 3D Printing or additive manufacturing, it's quite clear that printing tech is on the cusp of revolutionizing the manufacturing landscape. Additive manufacturing is transitioning from being just a tool for very specialized applications, to a process usable for line production. But what does such a shift imply for the future of engineering? Yosei Ikeda of Solid Smack poses an interesting question in this light: "Will Additive Manufacturing Ruin or Enable the next Generation of Engineers?" The answer is most definitely yes. First one, then the other, and in that order too. It's the end of engineering as we know it. And I feel fine. Probably.
In his article, Ikeda talks about his intuition of construction by deconstruction, breaking complex designs into a series of simple operations. You may know this as designing for manufacturability, producibility, design to cost or stock, however you prefer to paint it. Engineering is not about just coming up with something that works, it's about providing solutions that work consistently. We’re talking about designs free of fragility. Designs that minimize the use of specialists and tooling wherever possible and capitalize on whatever material happens to be lying around at the time. Engineering is why the Professor insisted on making everything out of coconuts and bamboo. Engineering is also why there is no Russian word for maintenance.
But doesn't 3D Printing solve all that? Yes. Eventually. Despite the speed at which 3D printing is evolving, we're not ready to order our Star Trek replicators at Home Depot just yet. And that's why we'll ruin engineers first - because 3D printing will be, when all the right materials are available, the lazy man's way out. Chances are if you can model it, you'll probably be able to 3D print it. We'll have all kinds of designers, and a generation of ruined engineers coming up with Ferrari spacecraft on a regular basis.
Why? Because they can. But for companies to survive in a competitive market place, there's a huge difference between the ability to fab some fabulous new design once versus the ability to make it quickly, cost effectively, and at scale. Not to mention most product design now spans multiple integrated domains (didn't you get the memo?). Though eventually you might be able to 3D print electronics, we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. You see all that stuff in there, Homer?
But at some point in the not-too-distant future, the economies of additive manufacturing will close the gap with conventional manufacturing processes. In one fell swoop, most of the producibility considerations will fall right out of the equation. It may be frightening at first to those classically trained. Things are certain to get interesting with earthquakes, snakes, and aeroplanes (Lenny Bruce remains unafraid).
At that point, printing tech will be a great enabler, removing long-held barriers to realizing ideas into production, not just for trained engineers, but for everyone. That might make everyone and no one an engineer in a subsequent generation. You know the saying about millions of monkeys and typewriters, how about a billion of them with modelers? Not that I'm implying that engineers of any generation are all monkeys or some such.
Simian or not, the point is anyone able to grasp 3D will be able turn ideas into reality through robust and cost effective printing-based production. And if you've watched children lately, they are especially well attuned to 3D. That freedom to innovate is incredibly important for the future. There are untold counts of innovations left behind every day because the economics of realizing the design just aren't there. Providing accessibility for anyone to have a crack at solving a problem creates amazing solutions.
So how do we balance the near term and long term future (without convenient temporal anomalies)? There's a delicate balance in this coming transitional time where younger engineers, adept at modeling quickly and wanting to dump to 3D print will be at odds with older engineers who understand the true costs of design decisions and advantages of varied manufacturing process. The only way to avoid ruining everything before enabling everything is for generations of engineers to work together. And if we don't, then it might very well be the end of engineering as we know it. How do you feel about that?