The King Kongs Of The 3D Printing Phenomenon
Article posted: May 16th, 2016
3D printing is a technology on the brink of revolutionizing healthcare, manufacturing, transportation and, if you believe it, fashion.
No new invention, the technology has been around for more than 25 years; but with hardware costs falling, research and development expanding, and innovators jumping into the game, 3D printing is ready for its closeup. Although growth is occurring at all levels, some of the biggest drivers of 3D-printing technology are huge, global brands with traditional manufacturing backgrounds.
In July 2015, the Harvard Business Review reported that over 30 percent of the world's 300 biggest brands were already using or considering using 3D printing. The technology, sometimes known as additive manufacturing for the additive materials used, offers the opportunity for rapid prototyping and efficient, durable manufacturing. The small-scale maker revolution is driving interest, but big brands are driving large-scale adoption.
From Paper to Plastics
When you think of 3D printers, you probably think of massive machines printing big parts, but the rise of desktop 3D printers is making it easier for anyone to print widgets at home. Buttoned-up Hewlett-Packard is poised to transform the market with their nearly ready Multi-Jet Fusion Printer, and software giant Autodesk has already released its own desktop printer along with an accompanying open source platform for companies/maker nerds to build on. On a more massive scale, Autodesk also partnered with Dutch construction firm Heijmans to build a 3D-printed steel bridge in Amsterdam. Industrial design from a computer. No big deal, right?
For years, Home Depot has been the brick-and-mortar home of hobbyists: a place for hammers, nails, industrial-strength epoxies and fashionable tool belts. But even this brand is flirting with 3D printing. Through its partnership with MakerBot, Home Depot now sells 3D printers online and in stores.
But what about those poor souls who don't own a 3D printer and need a widget prototype and fast? They can go to Staples. More than just office supplies, the company now offers in-store 3D printing.
Air and Space
Fly much? Wait a few years, and you're likely to touch down in a jet equipped with 3D-printed parts. Big jet rivals Airbus and Boeing are racing to produce printed parts for airplanes. And, in 2016, General Electric will introduce the first 3D-printed parts in an aircraft engine. Why does 3D printing make sense for aviation? Additive-made parts offer the prospect of weight reduction and efficiency.
3D printing can't guarantee an on-time arrival, but it can improve airplane fuel mileage, which is a big priority for cash-strapped airlines. Look for airlines to keep searching for the latest innovations in 3D printing.
Of all industries, healthcare may be the most exciting for 3D printing, if only because reading about 3D printing in the life sciences feels like a science fiction novel. 3D printing is helping doctors rapidly innovate lifesaving medical devices, fueling rapid prototyping and personalized patient care. Think durable, customized prosthetics in a matter of hours.
But the real gains in healthcare are still around the corner. Many think the big revolution will be in 3D-printed organs. By "many" we mean Procter & Gamble, which is running a grant competition to research 3D bioprinting applications in a bid to form functional biolinks with cultured human cells. Makeup giant L'Oreal also has plans to print human skin. Others are in the game.
Many people think of fashion as a Luddite industry. Clothes are still largely made by hand rather than the robots we expected, and hand drawings and in-store sales still rule the high-end haute couture world. That may soon change with the addition of 3D-printed new product ideas from materials previously not considered. MIT (that's the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to you) recently unveiled some new 3D-printed bacterial-based threads. The bacterial material is designed for performance in hot conditions, reacting to body heat and sweat by opening up. The material is organic and eco-friendly and could revolutionize the athletic-wear world.
What else do you need besides 3D-printed athletic shirts? Gatorade ... and 3D-printed athletic shoes. Zoom over to Adidas in a few months for a 3D-printed shoe. Look good and feel good, because these shoes were made with sea trash, designed in partnership with Parley for the Oceans to raise awareness about ocean pollution.
Why All This Matters
Sure this is all interesting, but is it really world-changing? Yep. Big brands are making big bets on 3D printing because of the promise the technology represents. Global supply chains are huge and overstretched, and research and development in manufacturing and technology is expensive and time-consuming. With 3D printing, prototypes that would have previously taken weeks, or sometimes months, can now be done in a matter of hours. When researching organ transplants or more efficient jet designs, these savings add up. Moreover, 3D printing allows companies to bring manufacturing in-house rather than sending it overseas.
Will 3D printing lead to printable, custom human organs? Will we all be wearing 3D-printed clothing or driving 3D-printed cars? Nobody knows for sure yet. What is certain is that 3D printing is on the bubble. Most analysts expect this emerging technology to have a big hold in manufacturing within the next 10 years. The work of researchers today will make the dreams of science fiction a reality sooner than we think, and you can bet the world's biggest brands will have a hand in it.
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