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3D Printing – The Potential to Reshape Industries

I loved when the meals materialized from the Jetson’s oven at the touch of a keypad. The idea looked so intriguing. And 3D printing has ushered us right into that era!

3D printing is a process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the entire object is created.

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing because it adds material to create the object.

The process begins with creating a digital model of the object you want to print. This can be done using a computer-aided design (CAD) program or with a 3D scanner that can create a digital model of an object.

Once you have the digital model, you need to convert it into a format that the 3D printer can understand. Several formats can be used, but STL (stereolithography) is the most common.

Once you have the STL file, you load it into the printer software. This software tells the printer to lay down the material to create the object. The printer then prints the object layer by layer until it is complete.

 

How 3D Printing is Reshaping Industries…

In an article exploring the status of 3D printing – called The Mainstreaming of Additive Manufacturing – McKinsey says 3D is now a US$14.7bn industry, with a 22% annual growth rate.

It goes on to declare that, 40 years after the development of the first commercial 3D printing machines, the sector is “extremely dynamic, with more than 200 players competing to develop new hardware, software, and materials”. [1]

Leading tech experts are seeing great potential in 3D technology for various industries. They believe it can revolutionize everything from healthcare to housing to how consumers access goods.

The four potential sources of value that additive manufacturing (AM) technologies or 3D printing offer over traditional production approaches are…

First…

Their ability to generate almost any 3-D shape allows designers more freedom in part design, produce lighter parts without compromising performance or durability, and be less expensive.

Second…

AM allows for mass-scale customization, which benefits companies that need to produce unique parts for their products. For example…

Test equipment maker Vectoflow uses AM to produce bespoke probes for fluid flow–measurement applications. Its micro laser sintering process enables compact and complex designs with streamlined shapes to minimize the impact on measured flows.

Probes are manufactured in various materials to suit the required operating environment, including stainless steel, titanium, and superalloys. [2]

Third…

Manufacturing can speed up product development and production by reducing time-consuming toolmaking and fabrication operations.

Look at the complex fuel injector head used in the latest Ariane 6 rocket, which is additively manufactured as a single piece of nickel-based alloy.

This part was previously made from 248 individually machined components, but additive manufacturing of 3D printing allowed for a more streamlined process that reduced time to market.

Finally…

3D printing is used to create new car parts prototypes. This allows car companies to test new designs and see how they work before committing to making them in large quantities.

3D printing is also being utilized to create replacement parts for cars no longer in production. For instance, Mercedes-Benz uses AM to produce spare parts for its classic vehicles.

 

And the race is on…

3D printing has the potential to revamp many industries, including medical, automotive, aerospace, and even construction.

In the medical field, 3D printing is being used to create everything from medical implants to prosthetic body parts.

Biomedical labs and suppliers leverage 3D printing to make customized medical devices and surgical tools.

A brilliant example in the market is the 3D-printed hearing aid by Sonova. Sonova has employed the industrial use of 3D printing technology to produce in-the-ear hearing aids for patients since 2001. Sonova mass-produces hundreds of thousands of custom-made hearing aids annually using 3D printing technology. [3]

The medical technology industry is often expensive when new products hit the market, but that may change with the advent of 3D-printed solutions.

These new technologies are coming in at a more reasonable price point, potentially disrupting the alarming trajectory of rising healthcare costs.

The shift could not have come at a better time, as aging Baby Boomers will be putting more pressure on the healthcare system in the coming years.

But medical 3D printing is not just for serious medical issues. It might become a part of mainstream medical practice to treat a wide range of people. 3D-printed ankle replacements, 3D-printed casts, and 3D-printed pills have all been developed in the past two years, with encouraging success rates.

The 3D-printed cast, for example, heals bones 40–80% faster than traditional casts. 3D-printed pills allow for interesting new pill shapes that completely alter drug release rates. [4]

3D printing has the potential to create customized products that are tailored to an individual’s specific needs. This could be anything from a prosthetic body part designed for an individual’s body shape to a custom-made dress.

3D-printed homes could become a more common way of construction in the future.

In Malawi and Kenya, CDC Group, the UK government’s development finance organization, and LafargeHolcim, a European construction materials multinational, launched a project called 14trees aimed at 3D-printing houses and schools in a quarter of the time it would typically take. [5]

COBOD—backed by the $1.8 billion PERI Group—is the supplier for GE, which recently built the world’s biggest additive construction facility to 3D print concrete bases for wind turbines. [6]

3D-printed food is also becoming a reality, and this could have a significant impact on the way we eat. It’s no surprise that the food industry is interested…

For manufacturers, it can help to reduce waste and create custom foods. For consumers, it can mean getting more nutrition into their diets or enjoying their favorite foods in a new way.

Quite a few businesses are already using 3D food printing technology…

One company, Natural Machines, makes a 3D food printer called the Foodini. The Foodini can print pizzas, pasta, burgers, and other items using fresh, natural ingredients.

Another company, BeeHex, is using 3D food printing technology to create custom pizzas. Customers can choose their favorite toppings, and the BeeHex printer will create a unique pizza based on their selections. [7]

 

Is 3D Printing a Clean Technology?

3D printing even has the potential to improve the environment in several ways…

It can help reduce waste because products can be made exactly to specifications, and there is no need for extra material.

Second, additive manufacturing eliminates the need for transportation because products can be made locally.

On the other hand, if you’re making items to ship to people, there’s no benefit there. Either way, the filament has to come from somewhere, so some shipping will be used. [8]

3D printing can help reduce the use of harmful chemicals and energy consumption during manufacturing.

3D-printed objects are typically made of thermoplastic, which, while not the greenest material, can often be recycled. There are currently several machines on the market that recycle thermoplastics — such as the material from failed prototypes — for use in 3D printers.

This recycled plastic, though, tends to become more brittle the more you recycle it, which may make users hesitant to try it. The industry is working on improving recycling technologies. [9]

 

The Drawbacks of 3D Printing Technology…

But is it all rainbows and unicorns with 3D printing technology? The answer would probably be no!

If it has the potential to print high-end products, it can also be used to create knock-offs and counterfeits of products.

This could be a problem for companies that rely on trademarks and patents to protect their products. For example, if someone creates a knock-off of a designer handbag and sells it at a fraction of the price, this could hurt the sales of the original product.

3D printing has the potential to be used for evil if it falls into the wrong hands…

3D-printed guns are already becoming a problem in some countries. If the technology becomes more accessible and less expensive, it could be used to create weapons camouflaged to metal detectors. This could pose a serious security risk.

The International Conference on 3D Printed Firearms was organized by Europol and the Dutch National Police (Politie) in the framework of EMPACT Firearms and hosted at the University of Leiden.

Opening the conference, Chief Constable Gerda van Leeuwen at the Dutch National Police (Politie), said:

“The development of 3D printing of firearms is a current and future threat. International cooperation, therefore, is crucial to be able to counter. This conference will focus not only on the current state of play but also on building a strong network of specialists on this topic, creating intervention techniques, and sharing best practices.”

 

The Future is Promising…

The future of 3D printing is looking bright. With the increasing accessibility and decreasing cost of 3D printing technology, more and more people can create products using this technology.

This is giving birth to a new wave of innovation and creativity as people are given the power to design and create their own products.

As the industry of 3D printing has grown, so requires higher throughput. This is the ability to create many parts as rapidly as possible, which is necessary for companies who wish to use 3D printing for mass production.

While 3D printing was never designed for this purpose, firms have been working to develop systems that can meet this demand. Throughput is essential for making use of this technology on a larger scale, and it is something that will continue to be developed in the years to come.

Among the leaders in this regard is HP, who spent years researching the technology before finally unveiling technologies capable of rapid production in plastics and metals.

The 2D printing giant has ported its expertise in inkjet printheads over to 3D printing with Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology. MJF is already being used to produce large batches of polymer parts for everything from eyewear to grocery bots. [10]

However, HP isn’t the only company in this quickly evolving space. A widely publicized startup, Desktop Metal, is working to speed up metal binder jetting. GE, too, is working on its version of the technology.

Altogether, these companies are ushering in an era in which low-cost metal powders can be used to 3D print large numbers of parts in a single job, potentially changing the cost structure for metal 3D printing altogether. [11]

Small businesses can use 3D printing services to create prototypes of new products or to produce small batches of products. 3D printing can also be used for marketing materials, such as 3D-printed models of products.

This can give customers a better idea of what the product looks like and how it works. Additionally, 3D printing can be used to create customized products for customers.

It’s a great way to give businesses a competitive edge. It allows them to offer unique products that other businesses cannot match.

 

Conclusion

3D printing can democratize manufacturing by enabling anyone to create products. 3D printing technology is becoming more accessible and less expensive, which means that more people will have the ability to design and craft products.

This could lead to a new wave of innovation and creativity as people are given the power to design and create their own products.

 

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References:

[1,2]. Jörg Bromberger, Julian Ilg, and Ana Maria Miranda, McKinsey & Company, 15th March 2022, The mainstreaming of additive manufacturing

[3]. Sonova, Sonova, 2021, 3D printing technology for improved hearing

https://www.sonova.com/en/story/innovation/3d-printing-technology-improved-hearing

[4]. Drew Hendricks, Harvard Business Review, 4th March 2016, 3D Printing Is Already Changing Health Care

[5]. Paul Baker, International Economics, 1st December 2021, How is 3D Printing re-shaping Industries and fostering high growth and sustainable development?

[6]. Michael Molitch-Hou, Forbes Magazine, 9th June 2022, Has House 3D Printing Finally Made It?

[7]. Yolo Inc, Scayl Magazine, 21st May 2022, Will 3D Food Printing Revolutionize The Food Industry?

[8]. Jennifer Sensiba, CleanTechnica, 25th January 2021, Is 3D Printing A Clean Technology?

[9]. Megan Nichols, Fabbaloo, 12th December 2017, What Are the Environmental Impacts of 3D Printing?

[10,11]. Michael Molitch-Hou, Forbes Magazine, 25th April 2022, Three Areas Holding Back The $10.6B 3D Printing Industry

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