“We are developing a new technology for designers to use CAD/CAM computers. This is so that the designer can directly make a prototype from the image he has on the screen of his terminal. We call this technology Stereolithography or 3 Dimensional Printing.” – this is how Chuck introduced his invention to the world.
Back in 1983, Charles “Chuck” Hull, an American engineer working for a small business that made tough coatings for tables, came up with an interesting breakthrough – a way to ‘translate’ designs on a computer to working prototypes. In what would later be heralded as the birth of a breakthrough technology, he ‘printed’ something unremarkable – an eyewash cup, which he chose to print because that was the simplest object to print, he thought.
3D Printing (3DP) or Additive Manufacturing has been around since then and has found uses across many industries – some more impactful and widespread than others. If this technology is as simple as it sounds and has been around since the early eighties, why is it still called an “emerging technology” even after approx four decades of existence? The reason is that, till about a decade ago, these printers were inaccessible, slow and expensive.
Things have changed dramatically during the past decade or so. Thanks to research and development that made it efficient, accessible, fast and less expensive than ever before, it is solving many problems that traditional manufacturing could not, especially in the aviation, healthcare, automotive industries. Though 3DP began as a technique to print 3D prototypes, it is now counted among this era’s disruptive technologies, playing a major role in the fourth industrial revolution. 3DP’s global market size is expected to rise to almost $22.2 billion (Glob Market Research, May 2018); bullish market size estimates are as high as 50 billion US dollars by 2025 (Statista).
Why does 3DP score over traditional manufacturing?
1. Easy Customisation: Unlike traditional Manufacturing that focuses on producing the same design in thousands, 3DP allows personalization like never before, easily and in a cost-effective way.
2. Cost Reduction: Without high fixed cost capital investments and a lower variable cost than traditional Manufacturing, 3DP can reduce manufacturing costs considerably.
3. Faster Time to Market: The time and resources needed to get to prototype out and tweak it multiple times is immense in the case of traditional Manufacturing. There are various stakeholders involved, from tools to people. 3DP simplifies this and makes design, process and production cycles shorter. It also simplifies the supply chain by bringing production closer to demand.
4. Quality: 3DP is also called additive manufacturing because objects are printed layer by layer as opposed to subtractive manufacturing process or inkjet moulding. This gives the manufacturer better control on quality when compared to traditional manufacturing techniques.
5. Less Wastage: 3DP-Unlike traditional manufacturing where removal of material is involved helps reuse leftover material for successive printing, helping bring down wastage.
Though large-scale traditional mass manufacturing will continue to have a cost-advantage over 3DP in the near future, prototyping, personalized medical implants and aviation industry are some of the areas that are going to be greatly impacted by the advantages of 3DP.
Current State: Beyond the Hype
3DP printing, now approx four-decade-old technology, is finally moving beyond the hype stage. According to an EY survey, thirty-six percent of companies are already applying or intend to apply this technique.
Industries like aerospace, defence and automotive are ahead of others in adopting this technology. Where is the technology being adopted? How pervasive is its adoption? What does the near future look like?
A pioneer in the use of 3DP, aviation industry turned to it to cut costs, improve efficiency and bring in on-demand manufacturing. Beyond models and prototypes, 3DP’s primary application in aviation and aerospace industry is producing parts and components for aircraft interiors. There are efforts on to expand the scope of 3DP to engines, exterior and structural components.
GE Aviation is aiming to manufacture 100 thousand additive parts. With over 300 3D printers, GE invests about 6 Billion USD in 3DP research and development every year. The aviation industry is ahead of the curve in 3DP adoption and is already using this technology not just for prototyping, but manufacturing transducers, functional interior components and soon mass producing engine parts. One-third of GE’s advanced turboprop engine GE Catalyst will be 3D printed from various metals. On similar lines, Boeing has partnered with a Swiss company, Oerlikon to 3D print structural aircraft components from titanium.
The impact of 3DP in healthcare is going to be life-changing, quite literally. Customization is key in this industry – be it prosthetics, scoliosis braces or dental implants. 3DP helps you digitally capture patient needs precisely and print custom goods. Instead of using plastic, metal, or glass, how about using stem cells to 3D print organs? Though this may seem futuristic, attempts in this direction have been fruitful in building tiny organs which may be the future of organ transplants. This bioprinting has many hoops to jump before being an accessible and realistic solution.
Polypills – a 3D printed pill that contains multiple drugs – is another application of 3DP in healthcare. With different release times set, such a polypill can make patient experiences better. Not just polypills, 3DP could change the shape of tablets -imagine having a tablet for kids in the shape of their favorite cartoon character. Though this is about a decade away from an R&D, technology and regulatory point of view to converge and scale-up, the prospects look bright.
Jewelry and Fashion
3DP is all about printing designs off their digital formats. If so, why should jewelry not be 3D printed? Given the complexities in every piece of jewelry and the manual effort that goes in, in spite of mechanization coming in, 3DP has the potential to disrupt this industry just like in other applications of 3DP, in jewelry industry, 3DPcan help in prototyping, customization, creating newer designs that traditional methods can never realize, and enabling faster time to market.
Imagine walking to a jewelry store near you to pick a design and then get it 3D printed! The time is not far when this becomes a reality.
The fashion industry isn’t far behind in boarding the 3DP bus. 3D printed apparels and accessories are taking fashion shows around the world by storm. Thanks to high costs, and the difficulty in printing closer-to-normal-apparel using this technique, 3D printed apparels may take a decade to be widely accepted unlike some of the other industries. Imagine printing a pair of shoes in the morning while you have breakfast and then wearing it to work.
Printing your dinner? Why not! 3D printers that can print food are already in the market. Get food printed as per your design, using ingredients of your choice, layer by layer. 3D printers can help you unleash your creativity on the culinary realm and print food of your choice. It may even help astronauts prepare a fresh meal in space: print and eat. Any ingredient that can be pureed can be printed: croquettes, breadsticks,crackers, spaghetti, bread rolls, pizza and so on. Speed of printing (cooking?) and cost of printers are still not in favor of 3D printed food to take off.
Unlike fashion, which still seems a futuristic application of 3DP, architects are already using 3D printed models to communicate better with clients and iterate designs. Not just for models, efforts are on to build viable 3D printers that can print entire buildings. A Russian company AMT-SPETSAVIA has launched a printer that can print buildings up to 23-stories. Though they are still working on ensuring that the printer’s output is structurally sound, such efforts give hope to solving the world’s housing problem. The US company ICON has launched a printing solution that can print a 650 sq feet house made of cement in just about a day.
Like the aviation industry, the automotive industry has been one of the early adopters of 3DP. Companies like Ford, GM, Honda and Daimler began using 3DP early on primarily as a prototyping technology. 3D printed parts are now increasingly being used in automobiles – the share of 3D printed parts in automobiles is expected to shoot up, just like in aircrafts.
What should businesses do now? It’s the right time for business leaders across industries to take the 3DP plunge. A disruptive technology at a post-hype-cycle state that can usher in benefits to the entire business value chain is knocking at our doors. Unlike most other emerging tech that is struggling to fit into the right use cases – at times ending up as a square peg in a circle – 3DP can help businesses reduce time to market, process time, waste, inventory and related costs and post-sales costs like that of spare parts. And what’s in it for the end customer? Customized products, lower costs, better quality – everything printed faster than before.
Beyond the availability of cost-effective printers, 3DP ecosystem will take a giant leap forward when designs are easily available, an accessible system exists to manage IPs around designs, regulatory and compliance go ahead are easy to get and standardization protocols are in place.
The future could be like this: you are looking for a spare part for your vintage car – and it’s not available even in any of the flea markets. Instead of getting a local mechanic to create a jugaad solution, how about getting the part 3D printed at the nearest print shop (or maybe using your own home 3D printer)? This is no longer science fiction.