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The revolution in 3D printing

The revolution in 3D printing
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3D printing, technology to produce three-dimensional solid objects, will foster the move from manufacturing using low-cost labour to highly skilled...

3D printing, technology to produce three-dimensional solid objects, will foster the move from manufacturing using low-cost labour to highly skilled technicians that operate the 3D printers

Most of us have grown up using a 2D Xerox copier that takes your data and creates a 2D replica of it. A new technology called 3D printing is now brewing a revolution with transformational capabilities similar to the printing press and the steam engine. 3D printers capable of out putting physical objects are starting to enable a whole suite of new digital manufacturing capabilities.

Most of us would have read about the recent 3D printed gun that was successfully built and test fired. Others have already built plastic parts, custom jewelry, shoes, and phone parts. Amputees are considering using 3D printing to make artificial limbs that fit perfectly and teachers are using them in classrooms to help build prototypes for explaining concepts. A London-based company is attempting to print and build a complete 3D house using on-site printed components. Mckinsey Global Institute recently identified 3D printing as one of the 12 technologies that will have high economic disruption impact between now and 2025.

3D printing invented by Charles Hull in 1980 is also known as “additive” manufacturing where in solid objects are constructed from fine layers of specially formulated material. The object to be printed is first represented using digital slices; descriptions of these slices are sent to a 3D printer to reconstruct the respective layers. Most 3-D printers work by threading spools of material onto a heated nozzle or a laser that drops liquid material onto a surface where objects are sequentially built up one layer at a time.

This process creates little waste since it only adds the required material. It can also make shapes that are impossible to achieve using traditional manufacturing methods. Traditional methods are “subtractive” methods that start with a block of metal that is sculpted away using lathes, milling machines, and other cutting tools resulting in wastage.

An exciting aspect of additive manufacturing is that it lowers the cost of entry into the business of making prototypes, customised jobs, and low volume products. The “additive” process requires less raw-material and because software drives 3D printers, each item can be made differently without costly retooling. This technology allows for lighter and more energy-efficient parts and ready made parts that need less assembly. Early adopters of 3D printing methods included jewellery designers, architects, scientists, and people who tinker, work with prototypes, and invent. Rapid prototyping allows engineers to check the fit of different parts in the design and ensure everything is working before committing to costly production cycles.

A critical component in this whole process is the actual layered design of an object that needs to be printed. Users can upload their designs or use 3D scanners like Kinect to reverse-engineer a 3D model. There is even an online repository of CAD designs at thingiverse.com which can be downloaded and reused.3D printing allows for a great deal of customisation allowing a user to tweak and personalize a basic design to their satisfaction before printing.

An array of different software packages ranging from design to layering software, reengineering and modeling software, and remote delivery of compact designs will be required. Hardware jobs will focus on devising new materials and processes for layering the materials. Several companies are actively pushing the state of the art and looking to hire new talent. These include 3D systems, stratasys, phenix systems, within technologies, digital forming, shapeways, and GE, amongst others. 3D printing will foster the move from manufacturing using low-cost labour to highly skilled technicians that operate the 3D printers.

3D printing will lead to a great deal of innovation because it empowers everyone with powerful fabrication technologies. The effect of 3D printing on manufacturing will be analogous to that of an inkjet printer on document printing since it eliminates the needs for minimum order sizes or the need for having a milling machine to build a part. The supply chains of traditional manufacturing processes will be completely transformed since only the part designs need to be stored, these can be mailed, downloaded, and printed locally where needed avoiding costly shipping and delays. New business models will come about that focus on repairs. Imagine servicemen fixing appliances and equipment by printing the required components in the back of their trucks. Access to spare parts is then only a design and a printer away. The customisation capabilities will help with bio-printing or producing precisely detailed personalised prosthetics and organs.

Additive manufacturing may be indispensable in building our future. It will democratise manufacturing, allow innovators to prototype easily, foster customisation at an unprecedented level, and increase the demand for a skilled workforce. Factories of the future will leverage the traditional as well as additive methods to optimise manufacturing processes and improve efficiency and quality.

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