3D printing alias additive manufacturing (AM) or direct digital manufacturing (DDM) is truly a game changing technology that has the potential to revolutionize the manufacturing of objects in the 21st century. It also marks the new age of mass personalization that promises to enhance innovation, encourage better use of resources and renovate the way things are being produced. The 3D printing industry is growing with leaps and bounds; it already reached 2 billion USD in 2012 and is expected to reach 7 billion USD by 2025. Growth in various industries along with the advancement in the technology has brought about a rapid growth in the budding 3D printing industry. Automotive, medical and consumer products are more than eager to adopt this technology in their manufacturing processes and also to take the industry in a whole new level.
Initially 3D printing was developed for rapid proto-typing of various objects. It allowed designer to design the products in a very precise manner saving time and energy and also the massive costs that are incurred while printing these proto-types. However, ever since the 3D printers started being used in various sectors, the evolution of the technology associated with these printers has evolved in no time. Making them one of the most desired technologies in the world. With the increase in the popularity of this technology most of the industries have embraced this technology with open arms. This technology has flourished in the jewelry and other personalized fashion item, in dental laboratories to produce crowns, bridges and implants as well as in the production of hearing aids and prostheses offering patients a perfect fit.
The first commercial 3D printing technology was invented in 1984 by Charles Hull. It’s been almost 30 years now and the 3D printing industry has moved rapidly up the ladder from Stereolithography to Bio-printing.
Medicines are perhaps the most exciting areas of application. This technology has evolved in no time from producing prosthetics and hearing aids to bio-printing of body parts. The breakthroughs in this area are rapid and awe-inspiring. Way back in 2002, the surgeons at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Mattel Children’s Hospital used 3D printing to plan a complex operation of conjoined twins. The duration of the operation was reduced considerably with the use of this model, usually the operation takes about 97 hours but with the use of this technology the time was reduced to 22 hours. In 2011, surgeons at the University Hospital in Belgium performed a complex facial transplant. Anatomical models and patients specific guides were 3D printed for use before and during the procedure. In 2012, doctors and engineers at the Hasselt University performed the world’s first patient-specific prosthetic jaw transplant for a patient who was suffering from a chronic bone disease.
The next big step in the healthcare sector is that of 3D printing of human tissues. In 2009, a UK based company Organovo collaborated with Invetech produced the world’s first Bio-printer. In 2010, Organovo officially announced to have successfully generated the first bio-printed blood vessels.
The other industry that has been massively influenced by the 3D printing technology is the automotive and aerospace sector. 3D printing is being used to make complex parts for electronics, automotive and aerospace industries. The giants of car manufacturing such as GM, Jaguar Land Rover and Audi have used this technology to make auto parts for quite some time now. Leading aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing are using this technology to improve the performance, reduce the maintenance cost and fuel cost. Boeing has used this technology to build the Environment Control Ducting (ECD) for the 787 aircraft. The production and assembly of the ECD is quite exhaustive as it has around 20 different parts which can now be 3D printed as one piece. 3D printing of aircraft components that are 65% lighter but as strong as the traditional parts saves a lot of money and also reduces carbon emission. The amount of money that is being saved by the aircraft manufacturers is gigantesque. For every 1 kilogram reduction in the weight, the airlines company saves approximately US $ 35,000 in fuel cost. The aircraft industry is all set to make an entire aircraft with the help of 3D printing by the year 2050.
Even NASA, is more than eager to use this technology in their ventures to outer space. The engineers in NASA are 3D printing parts for its space launch system. Recently the robot that was sent to Mars by NASA the Mars Rover has almost 70 custom parts which were 3D printed. Scientists are also exploring the possibilities to use this technology at the International Space Station to make spare parts on the spot.
Apart from these mesmerizing commercial applications of 3D printing, 3D printing is all set to enter in the public arena with the desktop manufacturing system. 3D printers such as Cube by 3D systems, the Cubex or MakerBot’s Replicator 2X is paving the path of bringing the possibility of home manufacturing one step closer to reality. For all those people who are DIYers should purchase the RepRap kit which costs around US $500 and can print their own 3D printer in no time at all. The software of the RepRap kit is an open file so anyone can make necessary changes and even sell it. According to the business analysts at CSC say that “the rate of innovation of the RepRap and its derivatives is accelerating faster than equivalent commercial 3D printers. In January 2013, the biggest mobile phone manufacturer Nokia decided to make 3D printable files for the Lumia 820 phone so that anyone could create their own design and print them.
The scope of 3D printing applications is limitless. Since the target market is very huge and the competition is minimal, these applications are bound to grow rapidly and displace the traditional engineering applications of 3D printing. These industry trends indicate the paradigm shift in the manufacturing industry. These implications also suggest that the radical impact on the way things are made and also the way business is done. The journey of 3D printing till now has been incredibly captivating but the next few years will be breathtaking!
Image Credit: Harald (flickr handle: haarald)