Technically speaking, the possibilities open to 3D printing are seemingly infinite. For the past few years, using a machine the unit purchase price of which is dropping constantly, say 1000 US dollars, you can buy an efficient personal 3D printer and start home-printing things like toys, spare parts, weapon parts, tools, jewellery, furniture fittings and even food. Shoes, frames for glasses and numerous day-to-day objects can be ‘manufactured’ at home using biodegradable corn-based plastics. The machine – which can also handle resins, powders or food pastes – implements software instructions to build up successive layers of the matter to form the final object.
3D printing can provide for sizeable savings. An excellent, emblematic example here is the “printing” of orthopaedic prosthetic devices (i.e., by assembling 3D printed parts) for a fraction of the previous catalogued prices. Whole hand prostheses can also be printed and purchased for a very low price. According to the manufacturer MakerBot- who offer a series of free print plans on their Internet site that can be processed by available freeware, the digitized drawings for a “robot-hand” were downloaded 55 000 times in just a year. Of course, in that large number of downloads, many are out of sheer curiosity. But we can envision that soon specialist teams in developing countries will be able to change the life-comfort level for many low-income patients using this technology.
Medical applications – printed human organs – are close to hand now. We simply have to come up with an efficient way to “secure” the biological base of the printed device. The University of Yokohama, Japan has asserted it will produce a 3D liver in 2014, printed from an “ink” composed of living cells – this could lead to a purely functional therapy. Biologists print ‘biobots’, viz., miniaturized bio-robots capable of finding their way through a human body to carry out repair jobs on a target organ or deposit medicinal drugs. At Harvard’s Wyss Institute, clam-shell-shaped nano-robots containing DNA strands have been printed – capable of opening up selectively whenever they meet cancer cells, releasing specially calibrated antibodies to destroy these target cells. Biotechnological industries could be radically transformed through future discoveries in this area. The next stage is already here and we see the MIT ‘self-assembly lab’ working on 4D operations, i.e., using the capacity of the machine to create objects transferring to the latter a further capacity, through to bio-mimic features of the composites, to transform or self-assemble with other objects through time, as a function of ambient heat, light, humidity level, vibrations or even sounds. We can thus imagine camouflage uniforms where the colours and patterns adapt to the strength of light or car bodies that adapt to humidity and protect themselves against salt corrosion or pipework that can dilate or retract or even undulate so as to create b pumping effect on the fluids transported.
A Systemic Breakthrough
3D printing is not new. The invention goes back to Charles Hull’s stereo-lithography, patented in 1983 by the founder of 3D Systems Inc. However, what is true is that this technical feat, together with rapid drops in costs of these machines, can be seen as a systemic breakthrough in the market-place. The very prospect – daily more and more realistic – of having a 3D printer at home, capable of producing all sorts of objects, could even seriously modify our consumer patterns.
On an industrial scale, the consequences we have to envisage are even more marked. With a 3D printer, design engineers only need a CAD software package, to make prototypes far more quickly than before and for a much lower cost and this will lead to a multiplication of possible prototypes and even limited production series of models. Innovation of models can be done by successive iterations. Instead of creating a cast-mould for each prototype, the same 3D printer will produce all the models as needed, from the simplest to the most complex shapes, each with an identical degree of difficulty/simplicity. 3D printing is oblivious to the notion of complexity. Moreover, it is an additive process by building up layers of raw material, i.e., different from classic manufacturing where material is removed by machining. In 3D printing there are no waste materials. The amount of raw material needed is consequently lower.
Traditional manufacturing require the interplay of numerous actors: equipment makers, suppliers, prototype design bureaus, storage warehouses, transportation. 3D printing allows you to lean-produce according to demand, as needed and, despite a higher part cost, the supply chain is highly simplified, energy outlay is reduced, transport fuel likewise, and finally far less unused equipment and excess parts stored. According to a Report by Lux Research, what we are witnessing is the advent of a new “supply chain” where industrialists, above all other considerations, will not be seeking to integrate all the production stages, but rather to build symbiotic partnerships to federate expertise. Certain, even noteworthy, industrial concerns are moving in this direction. In the USA, the National Aeronautical and Space Agency (Nasa) is considering assembling space vehicle motors by 3D printing them. Fuel injectors printed from metal alloys have been tested successfully. The idea here is to reduce costs and time to assemble the motors, for the purpose of accelerating our exploration of the Solar System, delocalizing some of the fabrication stages to orbital locations! Theoretically, 3D printing will allow you to assemble spacecraft in Space or on the Moon using locally available materials. The European Space Agency (ESA) is working on the concept of Moon-based 3D printing. Latest generation printers have been used by the American Defense consortium Lockheed to make parts of a telescope that will be sent into Space around 2018. The aeronautical sector also provides serious options. In January 2014, BAE Systems flew a Tornado with some of this aircraft’s metallic parts made by a 3D printer.
In 2012, two 3D printer manufacturers, viz., Stratasys and Optomec, set a precedent by printing an entire aircraft wing, including the housing recesses for wiring, opening the way to a combination of additive fabrication and printed electronics. The precision of 3D printing, 1 micron, for the best available units, is adequate to produce numerous electronic devices. In the future, sensors and communication devices will be integrated from the start, this leading to 3D function printing, which represents an advance that was simply impossible with mould injection. Nonetheless, we still have to invent a machine capable of printing the object and simultaneously building its integrated electronics.
If aeronautics and automobile manufacturing can be seen as promising areas for 3D printers, the Lux Research agency draws our attention to several major differences. Even if R&D in the automobile sector appreciates the arrival of 3D to do rapid prototyping operations, the possible added value is less than in aeronautics or space applications, for 4 main reasons: automobile parts have less complex shapes: moderns materials are adopted more slowly: weight is a lesser requirement; volumes produced are far higher and this makes 3D printing less competitive than mould-injection line production.
3D printing is adapted to a major trend: customized products and the added personal touch. In France, the Post Office proposes 3D printers in some of its agencies. Clients can print simple objects chosen in a catalogue or make models for which they bring their own plans/drawings, data files.
Medical instruments such as prosthetics, auditory implants, dental apparatuses, can all be made by 3D printers, in the hospital premises. This helps the patients to spend less time in care and lowers considerably the health expenditure. New services are coming “on line”, so to speak. Extending the concept of echography, certain hospitals are now beginning to propose 3D ‘sculptures’ of babies several weeks before they are born!
For the most enthusiastic, 3D printing will make classic manufacturing processes obsolete, and with them the concept of factories and in particular, ultra-concentrated mass-production units as have been developed over the past 2 decades. This move could reconfigure production geography, but in a manner that we cannot really foresee today.
For example, there is a lot of talk about giant 3 printers. The Dutch company KamerMaker is already capable of printing a house! The model designed by the Aeronautic and Aerospace University of Beihang, China is said to be able to produce titanium parts for the aircraft industries – parts that are ordered today in Europe for high prices and long delivery dates. With the proviso that the parts be of certified perfect quality – not the case today – 3D could reconfigure certain added value chains and reinforce the more powerful actors in the field, notably those who would produce high added value parts. In this condition, Europe’s industries would suffer and with these new 3Dprinters China’s industrial sectors could ‘take off’ yet again.
But we can perfectly imagine an erosion of the current comparative Chinese advantage, which largely relies on cheap labour costs, since it will be possible to produces the goods anywhere, given that no drop in salary will compensate for the costs of transoceanic freight shipping. Of course, a certain number of items will still be mass-produced using classic manufacturing processes. But we could see the advent of ‘commoditization’ of the objects, with value being found only in single objects or small series produced elsewhere in the world. Or in the data-software files that enable you to produce the objects.
In reality, however, the incoming industrial era, called the “makers revolution” by its prophet Chris Anderson is running headlong into several obstacles. Apart from very high level machines, costing several million dollars each, 3D printing tends to produce items that are less ‘resistant’ than classic moulded parts. Layer by layer build-up leads to a structural weakness in the 3rd (vertical) dimension This material drawback affects state-of-the-art processes such as selective laser sintering using polyetherketoneketone (PTKK). The surface quality is rougher. The required safety standards do not comply with normal standards in the more advanced countries. The thermoplastic polymer ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PLA (polylactic acid) cool rapidly but more sophisticated materials such as resins or powders can lead to local workshop pollution.
Another setback is that you cannot benefit from economy of scale. And of course the ‘time to produce’ will depend on the number of layers to be printed, and this can last for hours, or even days. Admittedly this is in order and acceptable for prototyping but not for ‘mass-production’ or rather small series. Speed of printing will remain very dependent on the speed at which the printer-head can extrude the raw material used. This is due, in part, to the required purity and homogeneity of the product but again these high prices reflect the fact that the 3D printer makers force the buyers to purchase their proprietary raw materials, sold with high profit margins – just as is the case for inkjet printer cartridges.
Lastly, 3D printing can lead to legal risks. If, for example, a safety helmet manufacturer sell the CAD file and a helmet produced in 3D printing reveals a flaw following an accident, who is responsible – is it the original model manufacturer, or the printer manufacturer? Risks such as these may lead to editors and manufacturers to exercising a degree of caution and this in turn would ‘slow down’ private individuals from launching micro-fabrication operations. The industrial protocols known as quality control are difficult to imagine in private micro-production of goods.
The prospect of seeing 3D printing moving away from the prototyping world to join the machines in mass production is something that worries those whose jobs relate to intellectual property rights. It is now quite possible to purchase an object, 3D scan it and then print it as many times as needed to satisfy a local market demand. These would be nigh-perfect copies, of course. The proprietary company could try to protect their trademarks. There are ways and means to authentify the products, for example by implanting specific ID circuits, or by taking special protective measures at the level of the 3D design files. But the danger of copies exists and physical manufacturing might have to face and suffer from the same difficulties as the music, film and AB worlds. The figures as they stand are awesome: The influential technology assessment agency Gartner forecasts that in 2018 the per annum loss in terms of property rights due to 3D printing will be no less than 100 billion dollars!
*Image of “3D sphere” via Shutterstock