3D printing is a technology that allows the creation of three-dimensional objects by a printer. While the concept was first conceived decades ago, it is only in recent years that we have been able to appreciate some of the potential applications of 3D printing. Initially, the use of 3D printers was largely limited to the production of prototypes by architects and product designers. As patents began to expire, 3D printing underwent many improvements and novel applications of the technology were conceived. 3D printers can now use a variety of materials, including metal, ceramics, plastics, glass, and even human cells. With the technology evolving so rapidly, 3D printing raises exciting prospects for the future where we may be able to print anything from commonplace items such as buttons, to life-saving vital organs.
3D printers create objects using several techniques classified as additive manufacturing. Rather than molding or machining raw materials to achieve the desired product, additive manufacturing creates objects in successive layers. The type of object that 3D printers can produce is dependent on the additive manufacturing technique involved. For instance, fused deposition modelling is mainly for the low-volume production of prototypes and manufacturing parts. Selective laser sintering is best for creating complex parts, and is already being used by General Electric to build jet engine components. Direct metal laser sintering is capable of processing metallic raw material without losing any of its original properties, and is currently used for producing medical implants, tools, and aerospace parts. Stereolithography involves lasers acting on liquid light-sensitive polymers to create intricate shapes such as for jewellery. Laminated object manufacturing works on sheets of raw material to produce colored objects that require less detail. Finally, inkjet-bioprinting sprays human cells into scaffolds of tissue that may be later transplanted into a patient.
3D printing technology has made considerable strides in terms of improved additive manufacturing machinery, and the range and cost of usable raw materials. As a result, 3D printing now has several advantages over traditional manufacturing techniques. For one, additive techniques greatly reduce the amount of material wasted during the production of an object. They are also capable of reproducing highly intricate designs, such as the complex network of blood vessels. Finally, 3D printed products bypass many of the standard manufacturing steps. With all these advantages, it is clear that the technology has tremendous potential to reshape the manufacturing industry.
The largest share of the economic impact of 3D printing will likely be attributable to consumer uses of the technology. A range of consumer products, from toys and shoes to jewellery and other accessories, could be manufactured using 3D printers. The products available for 3D printing would be highly amenable to customization, adding extra value. With the current cost of purchasing a personal 3D printer already down to around $1,000, most people in the next decade are anticipated to have access to 3D printing. Consumers may either own 3D printers or pay for 3D printing services at local shops. As the cost of 3D printing materials continues to decrease, consumers are expected to realize as much as 60 percent cost savings from using 3D-printed products.1
Today, start-up companies like Shapeways and Sculpteo are already providing 3D-printing services commercially. Users upload design templates, and have the option to get their 3D-printed product in a variety of materials. The rapid expansion of Shapeways to thousands of online shops demonstrates a growing market for 3D-printed goods.
3D printing also has important implications for direct product manufacturing. Unlike the subtractive techniques currently used to create items like engine components or medical implants, direct product manufacture will allow parts to be created much faster and with a smaller amount of material. Most of the economic advantage will come from manufacturing high-volume products such as simple tools, while a smaller impact will be made by printing complex products that require a lot of customization. In the next decade, the use of 3D printing in direct manufacturing could generate an economic value of approximately $500 billion dollars annually.1
While 3D printing technology has undoubtedly made rapid advances in the past decade, it still needs further progress before widespread adoption becomes feasible. For instance, 3D printed objects are relatively slow to build, and are limited in size, strength, and detail. The technology is also quite expensive. If 3D printing is to become cost-competitive with traditional manufacturing techniques, the price of both the printers and the materials will have to decline further. Additionally, in order to facilitate consumer use of 3D printing in the future, further advances will have to be made in the development of supportive products such as 3D scanners, and design software.
As 3D printing proliferates, original 3D product designs may suffer from piracy. Governments will be tasked with creating laws to protect intellectual property rights, while clarifying how the protection will be enforced. Policy makers will also be responsible for the approval of newly developed materials for use in 3D printing. Finally, it is possible that certain restrictions will have to be imposed on the general availability and use of 3D printing. With the recent firing of a 3D-printed gun, there is reasonable concern that 3D printers could be misused with potentially catastrophic consequences.
- McKinsey Global Institute, Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, May 2013