Additive-manufacturing, or 3D printing to use its more popular name, is the industry-disrupting innovation on everybody’s lips. From Fabsie founder James McBennett’s printable furniture to Christopher Chappell’s humanoid robotic hand and arm, Kickstarter is teeming with entrepreneurs keen to leverage the opportunities offered by this new technology into a thriving business.
3D printing takes designs from CAD software and, using thermoplastics, renders them in incredibly thin layers, making it possible to create intricate final objects which were previously too complex to produce.
The development of 3D printing technology has been largely led by Western countries, with US President Barack Obama going so far as to say it could well play a crucial role in “guaranteeing that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America.” But according to a recent article in The Economist, plans for an American manufacturing renaissance may be premature, as “China has plans of its own.”
Chinese production company AFS uses 3D fabrication units to create prototypes for the aerospace and automotive industries; the technology enables AFS to render designs into moulds for metal objects within rapid timeframes. Says AFS’s deputy general manager William Zeng: “All the parts needed to make a prototype car engine can be printed and cast this way in under two weeks. A conventional machine shop would need several months to do that – not least because many of the components would have to be made by hand.”
As with any technological advancement, its full potential of 3D printing depends on whose hands it is in. Chris Nesi at TechCrunch believes that “the disruptive potential across nearly every industry for this technology is incalculable. From the medical field to manufacturing, empowering consumers to produce will surely up-end the natural order in mostly good ways.” Nesi also goes on to explore the less beneficial implications of an inexpensive and commercially available manufacturing process, referring specifically to that controversial “Wiki Weapon”, the Liberator, the first ever fully 3D printed firearm.
In response to news that the price of 3D printing technology may soon make units available domestically, last month Guardian columnist Charles Arthur questioned the extent to which a 3D printer is likely to become a household appliance like any other: “Will everyone own a 3D printer to use at home or will it remain a technique, such as high speed colour photocopying, that stays in specialist high street shops? If the knob on a washing machine or cupboard breaks, will we download the file and ‘print out’ a new one as we now do with online forms?”
James McBennett is keen to empower individuals to make objects locally, by making the computer files that control 3D printing readily available: “At the moment you only get desks in particular sizes in the mass market. If you want a desk that, say, can also double as a doghouse, where do you go? Designers could write the file, you download it and get it made, and there you are.”
Should McBennett’s vision catch on, it could open up a whole new cottage industry of bespoke design, from spectacles which consist entirely of one piece, to customised jewellery and accessories (3D printed engagement rings are already a trend on the up), along with anything else you might be able to imagine. And just think; if you have a 3D printer and are keen to make the most of this lucrative new market, you could always produce more 3D printer parts.