3D Printing

Have you heard the term ‘3D printing?’ Perhaps you wonder why anyone needs a letter or report for the boss printed in three dimensions.  After all, we only read in two dimensions.

Yet at the same time, most of us have some exposure to computer aided design (CAD), being able to see a design onscreen in three dimensions.  We can see the design on the monitor; we can twist the design and see all sides from every angle.  Our own GSA Public Buildings Service uses CAD all the time.

We take for granted there are many steps needed to move the design from the computer monitor to an actual model or even a finished product.  Designers often produce working drawings and engage tradespersons and modelers.  A great deal of time may be required to go from that computer design to the physical product.

Suppose we put the two concepts, ‘3D printing’ and ‘CAD,’ together.

Well, here is where 3D printers come into play!  3D printers do not just print with ink, but with plastic resins or other materials.  Just as an ink jet printer can put numerous layers of ink on paper, the 3D printer can follow CAD design specifications and put down numerous layers of material.  Architects, engineers, and designers in the automotive, electronics, aerospace, defense, as well as healthcare fields benefit from the quick and accurate physical products 3D printers produce.

3D printers have actually been around for many years, but their high cost limited their use to special situations, mostly for crafting quick prototypes before committing to an expensive manufacturing run. Indeed, some 3D printers can be quite sophisticated, but now the choices include simpler 3D printers costing $5,000 or less, well within the means of smaller designers and manufacturers.  Efforts are underway to reduce the costs of materials so students can experiment more in the lab, and the range of print materials has broadened. More and more, 3D printers are being used to produce final products, not just prototypes.

Last week’s Economist had a fabulous article about 3D printing and its impact. People are now using this technology to make sophisticated industrial products, including “medical implants, jewellery, football boots designed for individual feet, lampshades, racing-car parts, solid-state batteries and customised mobile phones.” Three dimensional printing is known as “additive” manufacturing, because the object is built up layer upon layer, rather than the traditional “subtractive” processes of cutting, drilling, milling and machining. Consequently, 3D printing requires a great deal less raw materials and can produce lighter end products. Aircraft manufacturer EADS is experimenting with 3D printing to manufacture titanium parts, using only 10% of the titanium required for a subtractive process. That makes this a green technology—less waste, less energy consumed, and lower lifecycle costs.

Three dimensional printing has the potential to be economically disruptive. It lowers the costs and risks of manufacturing, making economies of scale much less relevant and speeding time to market. In an era of mass customization, 3D printing allows for rapid design changes and endless variations on a standard design.

Someday this may impact us personally. For instance, suppose I lose the lens cap for my new digital camera.  I can order one the traditional way from a retailer or manufacturer. This involves the time and expense of manufacturing, storing and shipping. Or perhaps my local 3D print shop can ‘print’ one for me tomorrow, using the specs available online.  I might pay the camera manufacturer for the specs and the print shop for its effort, presumably saving time and expense. Eventually, I might ‘print’ my lens cap in my home.

The widespread availability of 3D printing will lead to some very interesting legal challenges and intellectually property concerns with the inevitable lawsuits.  If the current copyright issues regarding music and books are any guide, it will be an interesting and long process.

Let me know where you see 3D printers fitting into your life.