The Economist reports that 3-D printing (also known as Additive Manufacturing) will revolutionize the world in which we live. 3-D printing does just what the name implies – it creates 3-dimensional objects based on a design program. The Economist explains it thus:
“It works like this. First you call up a blueprint on your computer screen and tinker with its shape and color where necessary. Then you press print. A machine nearby whirrs into life and builds up the object gradually, either by depositing material from a nozzle, or by selectively solidifying a thin layer of plastic or metal dust using tiny drops of glue or a tightly focused beam. Products are thus built up by progressively adding material, one layer at a time: hence the technology’s other name, additive manufacturing. Eventually the object in question—a spare part for your car, a lampshade, a violin—pops out. The beauty of the technology is that it does not need to happen in a factory. Small items can be made by a machine like a desktop printer, in the corner of an office, a shop or even a house; big items—bicycle frames, panels for cars, aircraft parts—need a larger machine, and a bit more space.
“At the moment the process is possible only with certain materials (plastics, resins and metals) and with a precision of around a tenth of a millimeter. As with computing in the late 1970s, it is currently the preserve of hobbyists and workers in a few academic and industrial niches. But like computing before it, 3D printing is spreading fast as the technology improves and costs fall. A basic 3D printer, also known as a fabricator or “fabber”, now costs less than a laser printer did in 1985.”
Why will this change the world? The Economist notes:
“The additive approach to manufacturing has several big advantages over the conventional one. It cuts costs by getting rid of production lines. It reduces waste enormously, requiring as little as one-tenth of the amount of material. It allows the creation of parts in shapes that conventional techniques cannot achieve, resulting in new, much more efficient designs in aircraft wings or heat exchangers, for example. It enables the production of a single item quickly and cheaply—and then another one after the design has been refined….Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did.”
One helpful side-effect is that 3-D Printing may promote innovation: “…because each item is created individually, rather than from a single mould, each can be made slightly differently at almost no extra cost. Mass production could, in short, give way to mass customization for all kinds of products, from shoes to spectacles to kitchenware.” Start-ups can make a few trial runs of a product to test sales and can easily refine the product based on customer feedback. Introducing new products will be less risky and expensive. Niche-marketing will be much more practical as products can be designed to highly specific individual requirements. There is also the potential for open-source manufacturing, as designs are shared among remote collaborators. There has been vocal concern about the decline in innovation in the United States. Additive manufacturing may help us recapture some of our mojo in this area.
Some think that additive manufacturing may bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Because it is just as cheap to create one instance of a product as many, foreign manufacturers will lose the advantage their low wages provide. Products produced locally will be just as cheap as those made overseas – even cheaper, because transportation costs are reduced. True, Additive Manufacturing is much less labor-intensive that traditional manufacturing, but the high degree of customization and the extreme niche-marketing this will enable will help to offset this – far fewer workers will be needed to create a product, but many more different types and variations of products can be made, thus offsetting the reduction in labor per product.
3-D Printing in Education
Terry Wohlers has some interesting observations on how 3-D Printing is being used in education. One tangible benefit is a greatly increased interest in engineering as a career on the part of young people who have been exposed to 3-D Printing.
“Until 3D printing came along, we were unable to show young people the beauty of the engineering process, taking an initial idea all the way to completion, until late in their educational experience…3D printing stimulates a student’s mechanical-spatial awareness in ways that textbooks cannot.
“Don Jalbert, a CAD/CAM mechanical design instructor at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center in Lewiston, Maine, says 3D printers can help young people realize they have a knack for engineering. ‘When I taught CAD 10 years ago, the concepts were wholly theoretical because the students could not touch or feel the objects they created. Now with the 3D printer, students can do much more than draw a part. They can evaluate it, refine it, assess how it fits in a larger assembly, and hand it to people. The 3D printer is a great recruiting tool for getting students excited about engineering.’”
High schools are using this technology now, and Wohlers recounts how in 2005 a team of high school students used 3-D printing to design a robot that won first place in the U.S. Open Robotics Championship. They were the sole high school entrant and competed against teams from elite colleges! That same year, they competed in the World Robotics Championship in Osaka, Japan, where, in competition against 24 teams from the world’s top universities, they placed tenth!
Wohlers points out that the adoption of 3-D printing by high schools will help universities by supplying greater numbers of high-level students to engineering programs. “As more high schools add 3D printers to their programs, colleges and universities will be able to elevate the complexity of the course content they offer and increase research efforts.” Of course, engineering will not be the only program to benefit. Any discipline requiring the construction of spatial objects, from Architecture to Fine Arts, can use 3-D printing.
As universities struggle with increasingly stringent budget realities, 3-D printing will help them attract more businesses to their research parks – an increasingly important source of revenue. Wohlers reports the experiences of one college:
“In addition to formal coursework, we use our 3D printers to support economic development and technology transfer to industry….We help start-ups and spin-offs with initial prototyping and use our machines to educate them on how to use the technology to solve real-world engineering and manufacturing problems.”
It is interesting how problems created by one group of technologies can often be resolved by other technologies. We have been very worried by the loss of manufacturing jobs to China and other low-wage countries, made possible by traditional manufacturing technology. 3-D printing may help reverse this trend. We may see a flowering of innovation that will revive our economic fortunes and provide hope for the future. This technology will also accelerate the trend toward high-level manufacturing, and the need for the manufacturing worker of the future to have a very high level of education.
In “The Death of the Job” I wrote that digital microwork will necessitate that entrepreneurship be a staple of the curriculum of virtually every student in every major. 3-D printing will allow manufacturing microwork on a scale we probably can’t imagine today. This will make solid training in entrepreneurship even more important for the workers of the future.
Some 3-D printing examples, from thinglab (click to see full-size):