How 3D printing works
Let’s say you’re an engineer. You’ve made a design of a bridge with your CAD software, and you wonder how it will hold up in real life. There was a time when you’d have to cut and glue and paint your own prototypes, but with a 3D printer you just click a button and wait.
Picture an inkjet that not only moves horizontally, but also vertically. The 3D printer builds layer upon layer of, for instance, plaster dust, and fuses it together with a laser or tiny drops of glue. Gradually, the object takes form, and after a couple of hours you’ve got yourself a prototype.
Engineers and architects have been 3D printing prototypes for a decade already, but are now beginning to work with metals as well to print the final product. Medical companies are printing medical implants with properties that closely resemble bone, EADS is printing airplane parts in Europe with titanium powder fused together by lasers, and dentists print dental crowns customized to fit the patient. 3D printers are making lampshades, racing-car parts, individualized football boots, batteries and customized mobile phones. Peter Schmidt at MIT has even printed a grandfather clock that works.
Shapeways allows you to upload your own designs to their websites, upon which they print your product and ship it to you.
How 3D printing will transform society over the next 15 years
Legerwood consultants predict that production times for most 3D printers will fall by up to 80% in the next five years alone. Prices are falling dramatically each year, and a typical 3D printer now costs less than a laser printer did in 1985.
We’ll see a surge of new products, as the cost and risk of producing a working prototype becomes negligible. In other words, in the not-so-distant future, we’ll all be able to cheaply and quickly make prototypes of our ideas, without having to sell thousands of units to recover the initial investment.
When fixed costs become insignificant, we’ll enter a new era in which economies of scale won’t matter, because a mass manufactured product might not be what’s in demand. Customization will play a key role in future manufacturing; why should you wear the same gloves as thousands of others when you could come up with your own glove design and print it at home?
Anything can be made, and we’re learning how to 3D print with all kinds of materials. You’ll be able to purchase a bicycle online, customize it, download it, and produce it at your local 3D printer’s.
Factories will increasingly replace conventional machinery with large 3D printers that can produce anything they’re asked, around the clock, unattended, tying up considerably less money in raw materials (up to 90% less) and tooling costs. Already, R&D teams around the world are flirting with the idea of additively manufacturing entire cars from scratch in large scale 3D printers. In theory, there is no limit to the size of a 3D print, save for the size of the printer.
3D printers will have a vast amount of applications we cannot begin to imagine today. Eventually, prices will have fallen enough for every city and town to have public 3D fabricators, and some years later, every home. Purchase, download and print, whatever you need. This will dramatically reduce the prices of a plethora of products, many of which do not yet exist.
Beyond doubt, a momentous decentralization of the manufacturing sector will ensue, with production increasingly moving out of the factory and into the home.