How Disruptive Is 3D Printing Really?

5 sectors facing disruption from 3D printing

3D printing  is set to transform the way that items are designed, manufactured and distributed in a number of key industries. By cutting labour costs and improving time efficiency, 3D printing can use a wide variety of materials and techniques to create a final product. All of this makes the technology an attractive investment for many sectors.

3D printing has been adopted by major players in the aerospace sector, including Boeing, BAE Systems and even NASA. Each have invested in Additive Manufacturing to print parts for their aircraft and, in NASA’s case, for rocket engines. The precision of CAD (Computer Aided Design) is particularly useful in advanced engineering as it enables close attention to detail as well as trial and error development. As companies become more confident with 3D print technology, larger printers will be used for bigger components. In the future, we will see entire aircraft built using 3D printers. Of course, this disruption of Aerospace will not go unnoticed by military organisations, which have a strong interest in the evolution of both air and space craft. The US Navy has already tested ballistic missiles with 3D printed parts, and the Air Force has invested in metal 3D printers to make replacement pieces. Aerospace and defence will be entirely transformed by the ability to cut out the middle man and support themselves.

From the Internet of Things to Virtual Reality, the automotive industry laps up disruptive technologies and turns them into profit. 3D printing is no exception. Just like aerospace has used the cost and time saved by the process to its benefit, car manufacturers will look to do the same. However, automakers aren’t simply creating replacement parts. As early as 2014, vehicle manufacturer Local Motors revealed the world’s first 3D printed car, named Strati after the Italian word for layers. It was printed in three days. Now, printing takes just 44 hours.  Local Motors’ next project, as you might imagine, is to release an entire series of 3D printed cars called LM3D. As automakers adopt 3D Printing, rival companies will experiment with materials and deliverables to offer the best product. This will include IoT connectivity, which is already part of the Local Motors agenda. How long before tech-savvy companies like Tesla Motors reveal their own 3D printed, connected car? We might have to wait for ‘Master Plan, Part 3’ to find out.

Last year, Chinese Construction company WinSun Global achieved the seemingly impossible by creating a six-story apartment block using Additive Manufacturing.  Earlier this year, they partnered with the Dubai Future Foundation to print an entire office building using a 3D Printer that was 20 feet high, 120 feet long and 40 feet wide. It took around three months to fully complete, whereas conventional structures can take years. Dubai’s leaders were well aware of the impact that their ‘Office of the Future’ will have on other governments around the world who look to Dubai as a model for sustainable development. But as WinSun Global has demonstrated, 3D printed buildings can be built for residential purposes. 3D Print technology could answer the current cry for housing in an overpopulated world. 3D Printing has the potential to disrupt the construction industry on a fundamental level, especially in cutting the necessary labour supply. However, unlike a number of other applications for 3D Printing, building a structure using Additive Manufacturing is likely to remain the premise of big corporations. 20-foot 3D Printers are too expensive and simply too big for the average person to own.

3D Printing has massive implications for manufacturing on both industrial and small scales. This is the sector which will be most challenged by the ability of everyday people to print their own objects at home using affordable, DIY 3D printers. Despite this, companies which offer bespoke 3D printed projects are thriving, with Shapeways in particular taking the lead. As of 2015, the enterprise was printing around 180,000 items every month. These products include jewellery, homeware, kitchen utensils and artwork, and all can be customised by the buyer.  It’s this that makes 3D Printing such a powerful disruptor to manufacturing – consumers no longer want mass produced, uniform goods. They want their purchases to be unique and personalised. This trend has also carried over into the world of fashion, with designers like Iris van Herpen adopting the technology to create stunning showpieces. However, domestic 3D printing promises to disrupt manufacturing even further, especially now that even children can print their own 3D designs. Granted, Mattel’s ThingMaker only creates small toys, but it’s still familiarising children with a process that is set to become common knowledge.

Another sector in which 3D Printing has been adopted for many different uses is medical. Within the healthcare industry, Additive Manufacturing has been used to make surgical models for training and trial surgery, as well as creating functional replacement body parts from prosthetic limbs to organs and skin. As of this year, 90% of hearing aids sold in the US include 3D printed components.  In multiple cases, even bones have been replaced with 3D printed titanium. As quality of life improves so will the percentage of the ageing population, which will lead to a higher demand for replacement body parts. As shown by the customisation options used in manufacturing, 3D printing can offer personalised products. This quality will be especially useful for biomedical purposes, potentially improving the success rate of transplantations and operations overall. Surgeons have already practised with 3D printed models before performing complicated surgery. Perhaps this will become standard procedure for all high risk operations.

3D printing has been used to design unique items which promise to enhance the way we create and build. As machine speed and product quality improves, 3D printers will continue to challenge conventional methods. As the range of materials expands so will the amount of items that can be made. . . and that’s already an extensive list. With the availability of affordable hardware and software, it will be interesting to see how domestic 3D printers will affect corporations. The technology has already proven that it can save time and money, and after the recent success of companies like Shapeways and WinSun, adoption rates will continue to reflect the growing interest in the endless possibilities of 3D printing.