3D printers get set to join the mainstream

A future in which you might print household goods when you need them using a 3D printer is approaching. Available since the 1980s, 3D printing is moving beyond its initial use in prototyping to become a tool for business and consumer manufacturing. This deployment will disrupt multiple markets as 3D printing becomes a $12 billion industry by 2025, claims Lux Research.

fast innovation

Big players including HP, Epson, 3D Systems and Stratasys are investing heavily to develop the technology, meaning the process is improving rapidly: the machines are better, faster and more affordable, while raw materials are also cheaper than before.

Printing objects using existing 3D technology has typically taken days, but 3D Systems in conjunction with Google’s Project Ara team is developing 3D printing solutions up to fifty times faster than existing solutions.

The range of materials is also expanding. NASA recently printed the first real-life composite component using its own newly developed processes, overcoming a significant obstacle to the realisation of 3D printing: the ability to transition from one metal or alloy to another while an object is printed.

Boston firm Mebonics in August introduced a more affordable ($3,000) 3D printer capable of both additive and subtractive manufacturing, so it can create shapes in plastic and carve them in wood and metal.

These recent innovations suggest that 3D printing will become significantly faster than it is today, and will develop the capacity to print increasingly complex objects, perhaps including circuit boards for electronic goods.

a little history

3D printing, “stereolithography” or “additive and subtractive” manufacturing, first emerged in the mid-1980s in the form of hugely-expensive machines that used STL (stereolithography) files to carve metals (subtractive). The technology advanced until it became possible to use STL data to guide printing/additive manufacturing of plastic objects layer by layer in thin “slices” until the shape was complete.

The prohibitive cost of the technology has until recently limited its use to creating product prototypes, but years of technology development mean costs have begun falling so the technology is entering wider use.

beyond the prototype

Airbus is developing reference designs for entirely 3D-printed airplanes, while the RAF has printed various components for some of its craft, which could save the force millions in the next few years. Ford uses 3D printing for prototyping and production, and Boeing prints parts for the 787 Dreamliner.

There are already exciting applications in healthcare, where the ability to create medical grade objects designed to match the very specific needs of a person's body is enabling breakthrough prosthetic procedures for patients. And the EU recently announced a $4 million fund to help develop 3D food printing processes for elderly people.

The technology even has implications for space travel. NASA will install a 3D printer on the International Space Station by October following successful trials printing tools in space. The vision isn’t confined to tools – researchers aim to print satellites and spacecraft using lunar dust as a building material. If successful this should vastly reduce the costs of space exploration.

patent problem

The power to print any object you can imagine has inspired a thriving trade in STL files among enthusiasts. Growing interest in open-source 3D printers and open-source product designs means hundreds of thousands of free product designs are already available from enthusiast sites such as Instructables, Thingiverse and others.

As 3D enters the mainstream, patent owners are growing concerned that consumers will use the technology to print unlicensed versions of their products. “If you can print the [toy] dump truck at home, it doesn’t have to be a Tonka [brand] dump truck,” said patent lawyer, John Hornick at the Inside 3D Conference, warning that 3D printing could hit high street retail as hard as file-sharing hurt the music industry.

To protect against this, at least one firm, Secure3D, is developing a secure solution that enables remotely based 3D printers to print items without ever being directly handed the STL file. Instructions are sent to the printer using the Internet, so the reference design is not shared; think about this as if watching a video on iPlayer – you get to watch it, but not to keep it. Bigger brands are likely to explore such methods to protect their patented product designs.

hitting home

3D Print UK's Nick Allen says that 3D printing will transform low volume supply chains -- car parts, small household goods, even tools might be printed to order. However, he says speed of production and quality concerns mean 3D won’t compete with mass market manufacturing, at least, not yet.

MIT University researcher, Associate Professor Joshua Pearce, reckons that the technology is ready for wide deployment, claiming the average US family would save the cost of a 3D printer in just one year by printing things like toys and kitchen gadgets. However, other market watchers are more circumspect. Gartner, for example, believes that consumer 3D printing is five to ten years away from mainstream consumer adoption. It says that business medical applications currently have much more compelling use cases.

So how can businesses grasp the opportunity offered by 3D printing and use it to their advantage. Can it play a role in lowering costs, increasing profitability, changing processes or offering new products and services? For some companies there is even an chance to provide raw materials and services for the nascent 3D printing industry. As the market develops there will be an increasing number of ways for businesses and consumers to benefit from this exciting technology.

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