October 8, 2014

How 3D Printing is Heralding the Third Industrial Revolution

Mankind has already witnessed two industrial revolutions that have improved human life way beyond our imaginations. While textile factories evolved from manual weavers and ushered us into the first industrial revolution, the second industrial revolution was said to have happened when the late Henry Ford mastered the technique of mass production and assembly lines. Today, we are again on the verge of a third revolution of sorts brought about by the rising digitization happening all over the world.

Rapid innovations in digital technology are transforming the manufacturing industry from a factory-only mindset to that of a manufacturing hub responsible for creating on-demand and fully customized products. This has ushered in a new ‘digital’ world where product designs are available and accessible on the cloud, using open design concepts and are directly printable using 3D printers.

MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer

Image of MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3D Printer

This easy and inexpensive way of manufacturing is bringing us a step closer to a future where one can walk in to a store and order a customized product to meet their needs, or even “manufacture” products from the comfort of their homes. This will happen because of disruptive changes in numerous fields and the advent of 3D printing, along with strong and flexible materials and other technological innovations such as cloud computing. Combined with other innovations in the fields of electronics, materials, and robotics we can definitely envision a future where a speedy, flexible, custom-built supply chain, supported by cloud-based open designs, is a reality.

Today, a typical design cycle in the manufacturing industry is an expensive and time consuming exercise which can result in bloating of the final product cost to end-users. For example, manufacturing a vehicle with a new design means that a significant investment is required to procure tooling and a commitment in terms of time to integrate multiple structures and components. Not only this, any prototype built using this model could risk getting scrapped and require redesigning.

Is there a way around? Yes! If you happen to be leveraging the latest advancements in technology to your best advantage. Many companies are showing the way by quickly printing 3D prototypes and working with a physical model that can be seen and touched to arrive at instant feedback. For instance, a 3D printed car can help reduce the communication process between the car’s designer and manufacturer, and thus reduce time & cost between conception and delivery.

A 3D printer works by aligning successive layers of an object until the complete object is created. It uses the technique of additive manufacturing and LASER technology to print a digital image using different materials like plastic, carbon fiber or more solid materials like titanium. You might be surprised to note that 3D printing is not at all a new phenomenon. While it all started in the early 1980s, the concept did not gain enough momentum due to various patent related issues. In early 2014, as several patents on 3D printing technology filed by Carl R. Deckard expired, the floodgates were thrown open for people to try innovative ideas around 3D printing technology.

According to a new report published by Transparency Market Research, an independent market research and BI company, 3D printing is estimated to grow to around $8 billion globally by 2020. 3D printing is poised to have a major impact on multiple domains, including architecture, construction, automotive, and health care. Simply put, it’s poised to change the manufacturing sector forever.

Let us explore some of the significant changes that the world is witnessing due to the evolution of 3D Printing:

Limitless Possibilities!!!

  • The future has arrived with the first working model of an electric car “Strati,” the world’s first 3D printed electric car. The car was manufactured in a record 44 hours in front of a live audience at an exhibition in Chicago. This electric car just had 49 parts in total as opposed to the 5000-6000 parts found in a conventional car.
  • Here’s another success story that reinforces the immense potential of 3D printing. Recently, a Chinese company was able to print 10 houses in a single day. The cost of the house came out to be well under $5,000, and the company is now planning to 3D print an entire villa. With government backing, the company has decided to develop a housing project that prints rather than builds expensive and time-consuming project prototypes.
  • Even in the healthcare space the advent of Manufacturing as a Service (MaaS) has truly happened. Today, doctors are 3D printing organs during surgical procedures and creating hearing aids, orthopedics, and dental implants using 3D printing. The future looks promising as doctors explore ways to print customized legs, elbows, and fingers depending on the patient’s bone structure. And that is not all! Research is already underway on the use of 3D technology to print tissues for treatment of burn patients.
  • General Motors uses a high-end model of 3D printing to build parts of a turbine. Recently, NASA has successfully designed and tested a complex rocket part, paving the way for 3D printing for usage in space exploration projects, thus bringing the number of parts to assemble a rocket injector from 163 down to just 2.
  • During New York Fashion week 2014, Bradley Rothenberg displayed 3D printed textiles, jewelry, and other clothing accessories using plastics like thermoplastic elastomer and thermoplastic polyurethane.
  • Intel Design Forum 2014 displayed textiles made from parts printed with a 3D printer in association with a Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht, which could well revolutionize the way we dress 10 years from now.

Just as innovation is making 3D technology affordable, it is also impacting the materials used for printing the objects in 3D printer. These materials can withstand high-temperature, high pressure, and are flexible and FST certified.

Environmentally Friendly!!

Proponents of 3D printing technology state that the Additive Manufacturing (AM) technique that is used in making 3D objects is efficient and less taxing on the already polluted environment. Traditionally, production techniques involved the use of a block of material for cutting, lathing, firing or drilling, or to give the desired shape and dimensions. The AM technique looks to “manufacture” products layer-by-layer and adds only material that is needed. Not only this, today large amounts of fuel and other resources are being wasted in transporting products from one part of the world to another. MaaS using 3D technology allows for customization and local fabrication-on-demand that saves transportation costs, prevents loss or damage in transit, and does no damage to the already fragile ecosystem.

Oftentimes, when products break and cannot be repaired, those are often disposed to a landfill. Thanks to the robust built of 3D printed objects, with spare parts getting manufactured right in your backyard, all you need to do is find the digital image of the spare part and give a print command on your computer and voila! Your product is now available to be used. Therefore the arrival of MaaS will not only reduce the pressure on our already dwindling natural resources but also transition us from the replace mode to the repair mode.

A few companies have also started leveraging the power of 3D to create robots that can recycle huge amounts of plastic waste (like shampoo containers, milk packets, etc.) to an environmental friendly material that can be used for 3D printing and manufacturing something substantial.

It is yet to be seen how governments across the world respond to the changes that will come about by 3D printing. There are also concerns that digitization combined with cloud computing and easy access to affordable 3D printers, can be misused as well e.g. to print ammunition which can be difficult for agencies to monitor and regulate.

Let us hope there are more positive and life transforming experiences that come out of the mainstream adoption of 3D printing in the future.