Imagine a future where every object in your house is fully customised to your tastes and needs; where every form, colour and even size are only limited by your imagination. In this world you create what you want, how and when you want it. And this idealistic future could soon become reality through 3D Printing.
What is 3D Printing?
Instead of shooting coloured dyes on sheets of paper like the classical 2D printing, this technology builds objects by placing one layer of the material on top of the other according to a strict digital template. These materials harden and produce complete and fully usable objects based on virtual representations.
Also called “additive manufacturing” (by connoisseurs), this technology was born in 1986 when the first 3D commercial printer (called stereolitograph) was developed by Charles Hull. Until recently, 3D printing was predominantly used for creating three-dimensional prototypes and moulds for future mass-manufactured products. Rather expensive, the process was still preferred to the more time-consuming and even more expensive traditional methods. See below a short animation from i.materialise about how 3D printing works.
Having a great deal of cash was the prerequisite of being able to use 3D printing in a manufacturing process. This is why Formula One and the aerospace industry were the first to jump on the bandwagon. The costs were prohibitive mainly due to its complex nature and to the limited number of companies who owned the patents and therefore a monopoly over the emerging technology.
3D Printing and Mass Manufacturing
When the technology simplified and when new improvements meant that old patents were no longer useful, many companies started using 3D printing as part of their mass-manufacturing process. Converse have been using this technology from 2004 allowing them to create a shoe 30 times faster and much cheaper than using traditional methods while Alessi, the Italian coffee maker manufacturer, saved 70% in costs using 3D printing. And the benefits are only expected to grow in the next years, while the time to take a digital design from concept to production is likely to further decrease by 50-80% according to the Economist.
At the moment, more than 20% of the output of 3D printers is represented by final products rather than prototypes and this is expected to increase to 50% by 2020, according to Terry Wohlers, the owner of a research firm specialised in this field.
Personal 3D Printers
With the technology becoming simpler, cheaper and better, it wasn’t long until 3D printers moved from an exclusive industrial use to a personal application. And one of the key innovators that made all this possible is Adrian Bowyer, an engineer and lecturer at Bath University. In 2004 he managed to create the first 3D printer that could ‘print’ 50% of its parts and a complete replica of itself in 2008. Due to its self-replicating capabilities, the RepRap (as the project is called) provided little financial gain; therefore it was soon transformed into an open source venture which everybody can contribute to and access.
This led to an invasion of companies wanting to tap into this new consumer market, however many failed to become successful, with a few exceptions such as MakerBot. The US company managed to open the personal 3D printing universe even more by using 3D digital models created with free software like Google Sketchup! or the open-source Meshlab (only professional CAD software was used before which was very expensive and difficult to use by an amateur). They have continued the sharing culture started by Adrian Bowyer through the Thingiverse.com – a place where people can share their 3D designs created for MakerBot Thing-O-Matic 3D printer.
With a continuous drop in price, new and cheaper consumables (at the moment plastic is the most used ‘ink’), easier to use 3D software and a growing and very active community, the ‘democratisation’ of 3D printing may soon become reality. But how will this affect our current society, deeply ingrained into a consumerism culture based on mass manufacturing? [To be continued…]
This post is part of the 3D Printing series.