No particular company or industry has a signature hold on 3D printing. It can touch upon just about any field, and this new technology can change our everyday lives.
Essentially, 3D printing casts aside the need for physical molding. As long as there is a digital model, a 3D printer can produce objects using plastic, metal, or any other suitable materials.
3D printing grew 29% in 2011. And world revenue for this industry is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2015, a $2.2 billion increase from 2012. The industry is expected to hit $6 billion by 2017.
Various industries are already using 3D printing for manufacturing products and producing casts for the sick and disabled.
There are even predictions that 3D printing could solve world hunger!
The possibilities are virtually boundless, but 3D printing is still more expensive than conventional molding techniques; however, experts predict prices will decrease with higher demand.
3D printing relies on laser precision of a digital model to produce highly efficient and detailed objects. Traditional molding does have its cons; the mold itself is not always precise, and companies tend to lose plenty of material during the crafting process.
That is why companies like Mattel (NASDAQ: MAT) use 3D printing for nearly all of their toy lines, including Hot Wheels, Monster High Dolls, and Barbie.
GE (NYSE: GE) is incorporating this new form of printing into engine and motor components.
CFM, a jet manufacturing company comprising of partnerships between GE and Snecma, has a new engine called LEAP, which uses light, ceramic materials instead of heavier metal alloys, Tech Review reports. Silicon carbide fibers mixed with ceramic material makes LEAP durable and lightweight. It will also allow a plane to withstand higher temperatures and save on fuel. LEAP would not have same the quality and endurance without the accurate models that 3D printers offer.
With 3D printing, airplanes will consume 15% less fuel, allowing companies to save $1 million per airplane each year.
Ford (NYSE: F) hopes to incorporate 3D printers when manufacturing auto parts – not only for its prototype cars, but for consumers as well. It is an all too common scenario where a car owner needs a particular part for an older model car but cannot find it. 3D printing may allow customers to place orders online and have it supplied at a 3D printing shop.
Ford will be able to get accurate prototype models and print several different prototypes at once. Ford’s EcoBoost cylinders require complex passages and airways to improve air flow and fuel efficiency. Such a product would be perfect for 3D printing, since a digital model would replicate all complex inner-workings with steadfast results.
Prototype development extends to footwear as well.
Adidas (OTC: ADDYY) was able to cut its testing period from six weeks to two days tops when using 3D printed soles. Nike (NYSE: NKE) is able to use 3D molding in its footwear for athletes, debuting the Vapor Laser Talon cleat this year.
3D printed shoes could be used to heighten an athlete’s performance because of their lightweight and flexible nature. Timberland took advantage of the ZPrinter 310 to produce prototype footwear for its boots on a faster and cheaper basis. A Timberland prototype normally costs $1,500 to make. With 3D printing, such overhead was reduced to a mere $35.
There is also speculation that 3D printing technology can create customized and accurate footwear for the everyday person.
In one way or another, diverse industries will be drawn to the new world of 3D printing, and it is something that any manufacturing company should take the time to explore.
Future 3D Printing Use
The 3D printing industry will surely grow by leaps and bounds as the technology becomes more widely accessible. One of the most unlikely places for 3D printing includes the food industry. Star Trek food replicators may indeed become a thing of the future.
3D printing for food consumption was initially thought of as a way to sustain astronauts during space travel. Mars One is a primary project for getting human beings to Mars by 2023. Experts believe that flavored liquids and powders can be replicated to sustain space travelers on the projected seven month journey.
NASA gave a $125,000 grant to Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer at Systems Materials Research Corporation. His prototype food replicator could be the very thing NASA will incorporate in its 3D food system.
As 3D food printing is being explored, many believe this form of food processing can be used to satisfy world population growth and mass starvation. Extracting moisture and installing carbohydrates, proteins, and macro/micro nutrients, a 3D edible packet could have a shelf life of 30 years. Over 1 billion people are starving worldwide, and world population growth by 2040 is expected to be over nine billion people.
And aside from supporting nutritional health, 3D printing is contributing to the medical field as well. Research laboratories and medical companies are using 3D printing to make cutting-edge prototype equipment. 3D printing is also being used to create custom splints for children with rare bone and muscle disorders. Exoskeleton technology for civilians and military personnel can be crafted from 3D printers, with a specific tailoring to a person’s arms or legs.
While 3D printing can work miracles in people’s lives, there is also the capacity for nefarious deeds.
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3D Printing Drawbacks
There is a concern that criminals can get access to 3D printing technology to print guns and other weapons. Criminals might also replicate cars keys from a certain model car or keys to someone’s home.
A German lock-picking company was able to successfully replicate keys used to unlock Dutch handcuffs using a 3D printer. In 2011, a gang was prosecuted after stealing more than $400,000 from ATMs by replicating skimmers, devices that go into ATMs and can yield debit card information.
One cannot ignore the downside of 3D printing technology, but what must also be considered is that 3D printing is a piece of technology, and like any form of technology, it can be used for benevolent and malevolent intentions. Unless criminals steal 3D printers, it is still cheaper to manufacture items with machine hardware.
And many people will not have access to high-valued 3D printers for some time.
The types of 3D printers on the market are highly specialized and only used by handful of companies to make advanced prototypes and specialized parts. Mattel has warned against 3D printers being used by parents and children to replicate as many toys as they wish for safety purposes. There is a concern from toy companies and other industries that consumers could simply print products using lower-cost printers.
That is a possibility in the foreseeable future, but when printing out important items like automobile components, it is best left to the professionals.
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