Image Courtesy of doommeer on Flickr
Few things have gotten as much traction in the last year as 3D Printing. I’m no stranger to the trend with the purchase of my own desktop 3D printer last December. Having gotten familiar with this impressive technology, it has become very apparent that many issues have been wildly exaggerated. This was the subject of a recent panel I attended at the General Assemby called “3D Printing, Beyond the Hype.” Here are some of my thoughts and take-aways from the event.
3D Printing is not new.
Did you know that 3D printing (also known as Additive Manufacturing) has been around since the 1980s? It’s not new technology. In fact, the only reason we’ve seen so much about it in the last few years is that several patents on the technology have expired. There other patents expiring in the next year or two that will lead to some other forms of printing becoming available to the public besides the extrusion method that most consumer printers use today. Some new methods will use lasers and UV sensitive material to build objects.
Potential problems associated with 3D printing are over-exagerated.
It turns out that most of the fears that have developed around 3D printing, including printed guns or manufacturing job loss, are some of the most over-inflated issues of the day. On the subject of guns, here are a few facts: plastic printed guns have been made and successfully fired, but pale in comparison to the quality and reusability of real guns or even homemade guns. There is definitely a debate to be had on this issue and I don’t intend to make this post a platform for either side, but it’s worth a look from all angles.
Let’s look to a more economic issue, like these printing bots taking jobs away from humans. We’ve certainly seen this happen in movies and even, to a certain extent, in real life. Just check out the show “How It’s Made” and you’ll see what I mean. Be that as it may, 3D printing has not gotten to the point where people will be in danger of losing their jobs. One of the big reasons is that this technology is still best for rapid-prototyping, not full-scale assembly line manufacturing. In almost all cases, printing can only build with one or very few materials at a time. Also, it can’t reliably combine multiple components with multiple materials. Think of the phone in your pocket. It’s likely made up of dozens of materials and maybe even tens or hundreds of individual components. Maybe as the technology advances in the future these issues will be more pressing, but based on the evidence right now, it’s not worth it to panic.
On the more optimistic side, there is great potential innovation in additive manufacturing.
With the ability to make quick iterations on a physical design, designers are able to evolve an idea from a concept to a tangible, efficient working product. Designers are also able to build off of other designers’ work to introduce new ideas into an object to make it better. Along with this open designing, the tools to create 3D objects have gotten more intuitive and are allowing more people to take an active role in the designing process. Forget the 3D CAD programs that cost thousands of dollars. There are now several low/no cost options like the 3D application Blender or the web browser-based Tinkercad. Another great contribution of 3D printing is the fact that designs can get more complex without raising the cost. The only variable that ends up effecting cost is the amount of material used or the volume of the object. This opens up the possibilities for designs that were never feasible with more traditional forms of manufacturing.
Overall, I see a very positive future with 3D printing across a broad set of industries. There will be times where we’ll have to examine the technology more closely and make some tough decisions, but at the end of the day we can all say that we were there at the beginning of a modern-day technological revolution.
Where do you see 3D printing going? Are you excited or terrified by it? Drop us a line below.
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