Words: James Woodcock
Photograph: Carolyn Eaton/Alamy
printing or additive manufacturing — call it what you will, the whole lexicon and naming convention is something with which the industry has struggled for years, and continues to do so even now. When the magazine I now edit, TCT, started up it was all called ‘rapid prototyping’, but today that term doesn’t suffice because as the technology has developed, so too has its application. Where once, for example, 3D printers were being used to create prototypes, now they are being used within additive manufacture and a plethora of other environments too.
It’s a set of technologies that have been around longer than most people realise. The first 3D printed part as we would recognise it today was made in 1984, which then led to the creation of the first 3D printing company, 3D Systems, in 1986. At this nascent stage, however, everything was still under patent, and everybody wanted to protect and milk what little intellectual property they had. Prices were high, competition was low, and adoption lower still.
That’s not to say that the potential of 3D printing went wholly unnoticed on the corporate front, though; BMW purchased their first 3D printers in 1990, four years after commercial availability. They started their own internal application development and remain a major user of the technology. The aerospace industry saw potential too, investing in 3D printers to expedite phenomenally lengthy project lead times.
There was, then, a mass of advertisers and a community substantial enough to make 3D printing viable in the pre-internet days, and the processes established during those days would be recognisable today.
The next big wave in 3D printing was the advent of metal manufacturing devices, around the turn of the century, raising awareness and opening up a whole new world of possible applications. Like everything else, the internet and connectivity have revolutionised 3D printing, too. The building blocks of all 3D prints are their digital files, so being able to create more complex, larger files, shareable around the globe, has been massively important. 3D printing now comprises dozens of processes, hundreds of materials and thousands of applications.
Building the way and the will
As 3D printing technologies get quicker, as more materials become available, and as the processes become more efficient, the capability for meaningful disruption grows, although this could happen tomorrow or in 10 years.
One area it has the potential to impact dramatically is supply chain. If you break part ‘X’, for example, you could have it manufactured at a local hub as opposed to depending on centralised distribution hubs all over the world relying on dispersed manufacturing plants.
Such local hubs already exist, often run independently but also by established companies such as Staples, and interest in them is growing, as it is for online printing ‘social manufacturing’ hubs. Moreover, consumer access to ‘desktop’ 3D printers is increasing. However, the capability of the technology is such that manufacturing like this on a large scale simply isn’t viable yet.
Take an often-hyped example: washing machines. Serious production of these devices is so far down the road at the moment. Certainly, it’s possible to batch-manufacture specific parts for them, but to do so on a serious scale of production is horrifically expensive compared with traditional manufacturing — mind-blowingly expensive, in fact. Mass manufacturing is not the battleground for 3D printing today.
As 3D printing technologies get quicker and more efficient, the capability for meaningful disruption grows, although this could happen tomorrow or in 10 years
It isn’t just a case of technological capability and efficiency, either, but also one of attitude. Being able to self-manufacture that one-off, bespoke component for your washing machine is one thing; completely changing your attitude to a task you would normally leave in the hands of a skilled tradesperson is another thing altogether. People simply aren’t going to suddenly find the time and skill overnight that enables them to fix their own washing machines, regardless of how accessible the tools are. Most people could already buy the tools needed for car maintenance at a fraction of the price of a 3D printer, but how many do?
Adapt or die
The big changes are going to come to 3D printing when industries and businesses realise more and more potential applications for the technology, but that necessitates a degree of adaptation.
In the case of manufacturing firms and companies involved in producing physical things, they will absolutely have to adapt to the technology. And if a company occupied with the production of bespoke products isn’t looking at 3D printing, then it really should be.
However, the technology of 3D printing is markedly out-accelerating its operational skills base because of the fact that people cannot be trained quickly enough to keep up with the pace of technological change. As such, there are countless dedicated courses for 3D printing, especially at postgraduate level, and the people undertaking these are the people who will go on to advance the technology’s application in the future.
All businesses, though, should be exploring the potential benefits of 3D printing because there are so many tangential and related technologies available through it. Ultimately, it comes down to time and how much of it a company can spend looking at something that is, at the moment, admittedly blue-sky.
A return of manufacturing?
There’s much idealistic prophecy surrounding the return of Western manufacture, as if a new era of opportunity is waiting just around the corner. Truth be told, though, it’s not likely to happen, at least not any time soon.
Consider it thus: the moment a product comes out in the West there’s already a clone in circulation in China. The Chinese wouldn’t be able to sell such clones in Western markets because they would be sued immediately, but within their home market (which, remember, is huge) the devices are proving massively beneficial to the economy.
What’s more, Eastern economies are starting to put serious amounts of money into 3D printing research and development, and thus include that as part of their economy alongside manufacturing. They are equally intent on education and specific training, too, and are gradually coming around to lower design and production costs.
Consider it thus: the moment a product comes out in the West there’s already a clone in circulation in China
Because of the free market, the rest of the world has access to the very same technologies that we have in the West. That being the case (and an especially beneficial one for economies with the advantages of lower labour costs and booming business environments), it isn’t likely that the UK will get significant leverage from 3D printing, at least not in terms of manufacturing.
The West is not entirely out of its economic depth here, though, for there’s one thing it does have, especially in Britain: an engineering heritage. It has a massively skilled workforce built up around decades of automotive and aerospace engineering, and 3D printing is such that you absolutely need highly skilled operators — it’s not just a case of ‘push button, get part’.
The personal touch
In the case of 3D printing there’s a general consensus that there is no need to disrupt largely efficient production chains with something still significantly less efficient. But imagine what it could mean if harnessed, as indeed it already is to a degree, within the medical industry. Jaws, blood vessels and functioning organs are prints that constitute the tip of the iceberg that is biomedical 3D printing, a process wholly reliant on customisation.
Phenomenally advanced examples, yes, but herein lies the true potential of 3D printing: its ability to manufacture such one-off parts, or sets of parts that are different. 3D printing a one-off, complex shape is significantly more cost-effective than producing it by traditional manufacturing routes, while something like a bespoke human organ would be impossible without it.
The human-oriented environment is one in which 3D printing is proving quite a force. It’s not just the domain of doctors and dentists, though; corporations are also reaping the benefits of using 3D printing in conjunction with their own human-oriented operations, most notably in marketing.
Jaws, blood vessels and functioning organs are prints that constitute the tip of the iceberg that is biomedical 3D printing
The way in which 3D printing is tapping into personalisation, especially in the case of gifts and figurines, is making for huge business. Coca-Cola, for instance, ran a campaign in Israel whereby you could fully digitise yourself in order to have a model 3D printed to promote their mini bottles. Disney offered a similar opportunity to its fans, as did LEGO with customisable bricks.
The film industry is tuning in, too, with fans able to print physical replicas of props, as are fashion companies like Adidas. Even the automotive industry has turned to the technology from a marketing perspective, most notably Volkswagen with their ‘The Polo Principle’ campaign which effectively turned consumers into car designers via 3D printing.
There’s an insurance company in the Netherlands which has been looking into 3D printing for the repair and replacement of items which people claim on their policies, and one bank has begun 3D printing attractive scale replicas of customers’ future homes as a way of clinching business.
Even though such outputs could be considered gimmicky, the sea of opportunity afforded by ‘3D marketing’ is undoubtedly opening up uncharted environments in which customers and brands can interact meaningfully. 3D printing is ultimately a waiting game, though, and its potential, although higher than its current capability, lies largely dormant. Yet with every new development the entire industry tips in the favour of those able to see, or at least begin to imagine, what it will one day become.
FUNDING THE FUTURE
Compared with generic companies dealing in physical parts, it’s particularly expensive for 3D printing companies to get up and running because of the hardware involved.
The innumerable 3D printing shows taking place around the world each year do, however, garner high levels of interest from the investment community, often to the point that investors and bankers constitute the highest proportion of attendees. The shows, especially those in New York, London and Frankfurt, see massive crowds, not mainly of users, but of people looking for investment opportunities.
The crowds can be divided into two camps, too: the old school who fund through traditional means like stocks, and the new school who favour crowd funding. Crowd funding is brilliant at the lower end of technology investment. Here, the rate of innovation is high and there is little legacy with which start-ups must contend. Granted, it’s a more or less unproven investment strategy and generally doesn’t appeal to traditional investors, but for a potential investor having the chance to get one of the first printers off the line in return for chipping in $20 through the likes of Kickstarter, now you’re looking at a less considerable commitment.
This story is taken from the second issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.
James Woodcock is Group Editor of TCT Magazine and Conference Director for TCT’s events in the UK, Europe, Asia and USA. TCT covers 3D printing and additive manufacturing “from hackerspace to aerospace”.
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