Although the technology has been around since 1984 is amazing in its present incarnation and commercially viable applications are emerging. Some of the most exciting include housebuilding, the replacement of human and animal organs, and even the manufacture of blood cells. A 3D printer was installed on the International Space Station in 2014, marking no less than the dawn of in-space manufacturing.
Funding a 3D Printer
Back on the ground, producing cheap 3D prototypes at a fraction of the cost of traditional approaches slashes operating budgets, and teams are galvanising sales processes by offering the customer a more workable idea about the finished product.
Though Siemens and other listed, global companies are at the forefront of what is being hailed as a new industrial revolution, smaller, agile enterprises and indeed start-ups are especially poised to capitalise on this technology. Finance and leasing arrangements are widely available for commercial 3D printers, with prices starting below £1,000. More powerful printers come at much dearer price points, but their impact on production costs offsets the financing for certain manufacturers.
3D Printing for Prototyping
To be sure, further development is required before 3D printing is widely adopted for commercial applications, but from what we have witnessed, the finish is of a standard that is very much acceptable for prototyping.
Following our visit to Canon UK in Reading, we detected a real battle between how much you invest in 3D technology and how quickly the technology itself actually develops. Although 3D printing takes ‘a long time’ (in comparison to a regular printer), it is undeniably cost-effective when compared with the labour, materials and hours that go into a traditional prototyping model.
One step on is the introduction of 4D technology frequently involves wearing virtual reality goggles to examine a computer-generated model of products in development. Early adopters are using it to iron out niggles – a button that appears in an inaccessible place on a machine, for instance – without going to the expense of building a physical model.
The confluence of virtual reality and 3D printing has not gone unnoticed by Apple. The consumer-products giant is using virtual reality simulators to test self-driving software before it is applied to public roads. Further along the product development cycle, 3D printing could play a crucial part in the manufacture of autonomous cars. Apple notably filed a patent application for a type of 3D colour printing recently, and the world’s first 3D-printed car went on sale this year.
Returning to 4D modelling, the end user gets a very workable view on the finished goods. Keen to change the colour at the last minute? Having second thoughts now that you’ve got a view on what you’re buying?
We’ve seen this first hand with a bathroom designer. The ability to see the units and bathroom items in different places was eminently useful, especially when so much money was being spent. This proved to be a convincing competitive advantage for the designer in question, armed as they were with the means to show the homeowner exactly what they are paying to live with.
Extrapolate this to big business and you can see the value: where a contract for goods has a long duration, or where consumption of the finished good takes place over a number of years, it pays to know what you’re getting.
Reality and leases
This all sounds like fun, but the tech entails large initial costs, of course. And as things are moving so quickly, hard assets like 3D printers may quickly become out of date. This is why leases are worthy of consideration. Spread the investment out over time, and look for providers that let you upgrade without undue penalties.
Eventually its impact will be felt virtually everywhere, but the fact that 3D printing is often suitable as a prototype rather than as a final product lends itself to education. ‘For schools,’ writes an educational game designer for the Huffington Post, ‘this means putting rapid prototyping into the hands of students, teachers and curriculum designers, and a radical new medium to facilitate a more hands-on active learning environment.’ Learning is enhanced with the in-class production of interactive tools that offer tangible, visible links between the lessons and the ideas they are based on. Unclear on why c2 really does equal a2 and b2 put together? Print out a right-angle triangle, some associated squares, and see for yourself.
The next step: 4D
We never reach the technology horizon, of course. Enter 4D printing. In practice, the term refers to 3D printing processes that use materials which change shape after they have been printed, and do so in response to a stimulus that is important to their final use: water, weight, light, heat.
Another way of thinking of it is that the fourth dimension, often popularly presumed to be time, comes into play post-production. Skylar Tibbits is co-director of MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab, where 4D work is the focus, and he is imagining trainers that morph if you switch from walking to tennis, or clothing that tightens up in the rain. He tells a TED audience that ‘you take multi-material 3D printing … and you add a new capability, which is transformation … the parts can transform from one shape to another shape directly on their own. And this is like robotics without wires or motors, so you completely print this part and it can transform into something else.’