3D printing is one of the more jaw-dropping developments of recent times, taking a premise straight out of a science-fiction movie and making it a reality. For the uninitiated, 3D printing is the process of creating solid, physical objects from digital designs using additive processes – basically the printer outputs successive thin layers of material until the object itself is formed.
Technology analysts have certainly caught the 3D printing bug. Gartner projects that global shipments of 3D printers will reach almost half a million in 2016, up more than 100 percent on its figures for 2015, and that this rate of over 100 per cent growth will continue year on year to 2019. IDC estimates that the US 3D printing market alone will be worth around $1.5 billion in hardware alone by 2019.
More variations of 3D printing hardware have arrived, with a new class of mid-range printers emerging over the past year with advanced capabilities at more affordable price points. These printers utilize different methods, such as fused filament fabrication (FFF) for plastics, stereolithography with photosensitive polymers and laser sintering with metals. Costing just a few thousand dollars, they have become a viable mainstream enterprise option.
Evolution in action
In fact 3D printing is already having an impact across a number of sectors. For example, in manufacturing, companies are using it to produce cheaper prototypes quickly and reduce manufacturing cycle times, helping them cut costs in general.
In the medical and healthcare sector, 3D printers are producing self-vaccination kits, raising the incredible prospect of people being able to print out and take their winter flu jabs without leaving home. MIT recently unveiled an exciting new breakthrough, 3D printing using glass, with the long-term implications for the medical industry being quite amazing – imagine being able to print your own syringes for example.
Prosthetic limbs, hearing aids, heart valves, even bones and 3D printed liver cells able to function for over 40 days have all now been successfully developed. The possibilities of 3D printing in this area are hugely exciting.
In the automotive sector, one Californian start-up has boldly claimed that its 3D-printed car can beat the Porsche 918 Spyder’s zero to sixty miles per hour speed record of 2.2 seconds. The 3D-printed supercar, named The Blade, is made of 3D-printed aluminum joints and its chassis is made of carbon fiber tubes, creating a car that weighs just 1,400 pounds.
The consumer goods space is also feeling the impact of 3D printing. Scale models are helping to develop products more quickly, while clothing, toys, house and garden tools, jewelry and much more have been produced. There is even the potential for 3D-printed homes in the future.
So where will it go from here?
If all goes as the various industry experts and research houses predict, 3D printing is set to grow in popularity and use rapidly. Printers will get faster, driving shorter prototype development schedules and manufacturing cycles. In addition, printers will become more automated and easier to use – thereby encouraging use by both business and individuals.
Furthermore, many industry experts expect to see developments in how many different materials 3D printers can work with. At present most printers work with just one type of material, typically plastic, metal, ceramic, wood or biological materials. As the technology advances, and demand grows for more useful and wider-ranging products, 3D printing hardware will need to process a range of different materials.
One of the first examples of the 3D printer in modern culture was in sci-fi TV show Star Trek, where its replicators allowed consumers to materialize whatever they needed in what was effectively a glorified vending machine. That science fiction looks set to swiftly become technological normality in today’s world.