Thirty years ago a niche market, today poised for disruptive growth-3D printing is “the” hot topic. Pioneered in 1986 by 3D Systems Corp, this printing technology fuses successive layers of plastics and metals to build a structure based on Computer Aided Design (CAD) software. Each layer is about 0.1 mm thick, and consists of liquid, powder and sheet materials. It is currently used to make (print) prototypes/products in the automotive and aerospace fields.
The technology is now moving beyond industrial applications to the medical field, to produce hearing aids, dental restorations, artificial knees and hips; and prosthetic devices as well. Human tissue and organs are not far behind. Other application areas include food, power tools, toys, shoes, clothing and musical instruments.
GE, a big dog in the manufacturing world, plans to use 3D printing to make fuel nozzles for its new Leap jet engine-85,000 fuel nozzles to be exact, parts that will be lighter and more durable than traditionally made parts. GE plans to invest heavily in this technology, tripling the size of its 70-person 3D-printing staff, and expanding its factory floor fourfold. HP is one of several players in the burgeoning 3D printing market, and plans to introduce consumer-level printers in 2014. Rumor has it the new company prototype printer is a big fellow, five feet tall, maximizing speed and affordability.
Volume production is still a problem for 3D printing. It just takes time to build up all those layers of material, let alone complex composites. This is a big challenge for the would be leaders in this technology. Getting this right is important and could swing the “Made in China” mantra in the other direction-meaning jobs and economic growth on this side of the pond.
Could we someday soon be seeing small, local 3D printing shops springing up for folks to stop by and pick up their goods, supported by a local delivery service to bring them to you? Think of the gasoline energy that is saved every year because electronic letters via the electronic ether (Internet) have replaced paper and envelope letters previously delivered by snail mail. Experts estimate that even accounting for the energy used to make the electricity to send the email by traditional PC or smart phone, the electronic method of communicating is way more energy efficient, and of course much faster. Why wouldn’t we save energy similarly with sending manufacturing instructions electronically and printing the goods locally?
Yes, 3D printing is poised to be disruptive as it grows up and flexes its economic muscles. Who said manufacturing was dead?
Thomas Edison says, “I find out what the world needs. Then I go ahead and try to invent it.”
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