3D Printing: We’re only now getting to the good stuff
It's a wondrous time to be alive: cars are starting to drive themselves, robots are starting to walk around and conceivably escape, and 3D printing is starting to make previously impossible designs viable. Also, perhaps marginally less importantly, you can also mod Bob Ross painting happiness into XCOM2. As I said, a wondrous time. We're living an important chapter in the ongoing story of additive manufacturing, and the best is yet to come.
If you're the type to keep your finger on the pulse of the 3D printing market, perhaps using something like stock prices as an economic health index, you might be feeling depressed to the point that no amount of Bob Ross will make you happy. No need to paint a sad little tree, 3D printing as a whole is merely in a period of transition and transformation.
3D printing was born into manufacturing with plastic stereolithography for early prototypes and primarily non-production purposes. As the technology entered the consumer market, it has sparked an explosion of printing processes, devices, and materials. 3D printing has been a key factor in the acceleration of the maker movement and the continued democratization of design. The mistake is to interpret the consumer application as the only game in town. Moving forward, 3D printing is undergoing further diversification and returns to its roots in industry to change how production parts are made forever. Coming full circle, this is the moment where 3D printing will truly show its quality and lasting value.
Accelerating technology is reshaping the processes and applications of 3D printing across multiple dimensions simultaneously:
- Quality: In the past, 3D printed parts were merely non-structural. Decorative. Temporary. Now 3D printed parts are finding applications in load-bearing, critical, and permanent installations. Including things like aircraft structure and rocket manifolds. Finishes are also improving to eliminate the previous need for secondary operations to produce suitable part surfaces. Moreover tolerancing, resolution, and consistency are steadily improving.
- Speed: Most 3D printing processes are time intensive. Start a print, go get a sandwich or five. A number of technologies in the works, including things like Continuous Liquid Interface Production (CLIP), stand to change that.
- Materials: Well beyond just offering conventional themoplastic resin, 3D printing now involves metal powders (including steel, titanium, or aluminum among others), magnetic filaments, and photo polymers just to name a few. The variety of materials will no doubt expand over the coming years.
- Size: It used to be that you could print whatever you wanted, as long as you can cram it into a sometimes impossibly small box. Using some newer technologies such as Massivit 3D's Gel Dispensing Printing (GDP), you can print your very own 2 meter shark. But even larger scales to permit printing buildings are already feasible. Yes, you too could live in a Chinese house built from reconstituted industrial waste mixed with concrete.
- Breadth: The list of industry verticals which are touched by 3D printing are growing rapidly. Especially intriguing: biotechnology where 3D printed thermoplastic frameworks can be printed along with living tissue cultured from someone's living cells. Which means it may soon be possible to print replacement organs. That's right, in the not too distant future you could be your own donor.
It should be clear that 3D printing is moving beyond just the facsimiles and miscellaneous plastic crap of the past, and moving forward to a manufacturing future destined to employ a complimentary mixture of additive and subtractive processes to optimize how things are built. Opening up new possibilities for how things can be designed. So cheer up and don't fret this momentary bump in the road, a misinterpretation by Wall Street that 3D printing is only about consumers printing their own trinkets. We know better; we can see the future of manufacturing from here, and we quite possibly will end up with the means to fab a spare kidney to boot.
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About the author: (Ed Lopategui)
Technology evangelist, entrepreneur, and aerospace engineer specialized in the software tools and technology which enable engineering, design, and product development - PDM, PLM, CAD, CAE, CAM. Any views, opinions, prophecies, and sarcastic remarks are my own and are in no way associated with any current or past employers.
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