When the term 3D is coupled with a story on digital electronics, one immediately thinks of televisions. Each year, at events like the Consumer Electronics Show, manufacturers have looked to motivate consumers to throw out their outdated “conventional” flat screens, and replace them with vivid, more life-like 3D sets. However, to date, consumers haven’t bought into this vision. A combination of cost, headset requirements and lack of content, have dissuaded all but the most gadget crazed from acquiring these televisions. At some point in the future, when 3D screens lead to a true virtual reality experience, there will be compelling applications, from teleconferencing to virtual vacations. In the meantime, the likely benefits will be marginal, similar to the improvements seen in moving from standard to high definition television.
There is another 3D technology that has gotten far less press and primarily has remained in the domain of hobbyists and technical professionals. That technology is 3D printing. Unlike 3D television, it represents a revolutionary leap forward in possibility from it’s 2D counterpart. However, as it is a technology in its infancy, many lay folks misunderstand and underestimate its capabilities.
For those of you unfamiliar with the technology, let’s start with the basics. While conventional “2D” printers simply lay down text or images, 3D printers create objects. They do this through a process known as additive manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing involves shaping, cutting or removing material to create the desired product. Alternatively, a liqufied material is poured into a preset mold. With 3D printing, a digitally controlled nozzle, sprays out material, building an object, layer by layer. Like a conventional printer, it is software controlled, with tremendous flexibility to produce a wide range of shapes.
A complimentary, emerging technology that enhances the effectiveness of 3D printing is 3D scanning. These devices take an existing physical object and create a digitized representation of it. As with other digital designs, it can be modified and then turned back into a physical object through printing.
Early examples of 3D printing technology have been around since the 1980’s, although the term itself was coined in 1995. For several decades they remained very expensive, typically used be large manufacturers to produce limited prototypes of parts or finished goods. In the last few years, there has been significant buzz, as new, inexpensive models have become available for homes and small businesses. This is an echo of the earlier revolution seen in traditional computing. In that case, mainframes, available only to large, well-funded institutions, were joined by the desktop computers of the PC revolution. And just like that previous historical cycle, hobbyists and gadget aficionados are leading the way.
A number of current models offer price points below $5,000. Additionally, just as local retailers will print your digital photos, emerging services such as Shapeways, allow you to upload your plans, and have your object printed for you. The personal revolution in 3D printing is still in its infancy, with significant limitations. The current crop of printers are slow, typically limited to a single plastic material, and produce objects of limited size. Typical “output” include jewelry, small object d’art and mobile phone accessories. Specific examples would include cufflinks, sculptures and iPhone cases. Usually, these items are highly customized to reflect the tastes and interests of the creator.
This again parallels the initial, slow progress of the home computing era. Back then, the use cases were limited, with people suggesting ideas like “storing recipes”. But ultimately, the home computer, followed by smart phones and tablets, proved to be a valuable and indispensable device.
While the nascent home device market is still primarily an enthusiast’s world, the industrial market is seeing increasingly significant benefits from 3D printing. It is expanding the scope of prototyping, making it more cost effective to produce physical models of a wider range of products and parts. One example involves wind tunnel testing for aviation parts. While computer simulations are helpful, real world physical testing of these parts is still necessary. 3D printing enables rapid testing of increasingly complex parts. Engineers ultimately hope to be able to create entire test airplane wings from this technology.
Another emerging area already seeing significant applications is the medical device industry. One particularly novel application takes the digital output from CT scan data and produces plastic, 3D models. The models are then used by surgeons to do more accurate planning of procedures.
In order for 3D printing to become a truly revolutionary, disruptive technology, it will need to improve in a number of areas. First, it will need to be able to use a broader range of materials, and allow for more flexible, hybrid compositions. It will also need to produce larger, more complex objects, cost effectively and quickly. The lesson of Moore’s law is that anything reliant on solid state electronics will advance in capability at a geometric rate. Let’s look at some of the ways in which 3D printing could offer benefits, as its costs drop, power increases and features expand:
While retailers such as Amazon continue to amaze us with reliable, next day delivery, 3D printing offers a future or immediate delivery. As soon as a product is produced on a home device, it’s available for use. One would simply need a printer and a supply of the raw materials needed to produce the product. There’s no limitation based on time of day, weather issues or out of stock problems. A godsend for procrastinating gift shoppers!
On Sight Manufacturing
Retailers, using more sophisticated versions of the printers, could use them at local “stores” to rapidly produce products. Consider a typical housewares store such as Bed, Bath and Beyond. Today, they need to store thousands of different products on the floor and back room of their stores. Many of these are simple plastic items such as soap dishes, window treatment brackets and spatulas. Imagine the benefits of being able to generate these objects on the fly:
- No investment in inventory
- No out of stock scenarios
- Dramatically reduced real estate requirements
- Virtually unlimited customization
A British company, Monolite UK, intends to use 3D printing technology on a large scale, to create actual buildings. While this application of the technology is still in a very early stage, it represents a phenomenal opportunity. Utilizing sand and a binding agent, this form of 3D printing is envisioned to produce homes, commercial structures and other pieces of infrastructure normally made from concrete.
A major reason that 3D printing is poised to be transformational is that it sits at the intersection of several profound trends that are driving innovation. For starters, it is a bridge between the digital and physical worlds. It is therefore representative of the emerging area of ubiquitous computing. It is a great example of virtualization. These physical, “printed” objects, are stored as “plans” that are digital representations. The “plans” can be shared, transferred or modified, just like any other digital file. 3D printing is community based, with many plans freely available, in the spirit of Open Source. It is also a natural fit with crowd sourcing, where a producer looks to leverage the collective talents and creativity of consumers, to help design its products. Often this collaborative spirit is fostered through the use of social media, such as forums or wikis.
3D printing is poised to play a radical, transformative role in a variety of areas from engineering to manufacturing to retailing. The first big impact of the digital revolution centered on the processing of information. 3D printing will be a major player in this second revolution that links the physical and digital worlds.