Would you believe that a new technology is bringing us closer to the “replicator” featured on Star Trek? When our brave crewmembers pressed a few buttons on their control panel, this nifty device “created” products like food and water.
Additive manufacturing, sometimes called 3D printing, is a high-growth, emerging market that’s creating lots of buzz among industry, creative, and do-it-yourself enthusiasts. Analysts estimate that the worldwide market will grow from $1 billion in today’s sales to $5 billion over the next five years.
It’s a market crowded with different approaches to problem solving, a wide range of printer models and prices, and growing investment by venture capitalists, education, and government. Social media has enabled its backers to have a unique online presence, with blogs, communities, and marketplaces where users can share ideas and sell products.
Last month, I visited the “Inside 3D Printing Conference” at the Javits Center in New York, and saw 3D printing in action. Think of sculpture as an image for traditional manufacturing, which uses “subtractive” methods like drilling or cutting away to create or release an object from a block of raw material.
In contrast, additive manufacturing is just that—it builds an object, in three dimensions, by laying down micro-thin sheets of material, usually a liquid resin or plastic material, just as ink does in your desktop printer. Design software tells the printhead how and where to deliver the material—which I had trouble seeing in the individual layer because it is so thin. The object is built up slowly as the layers combine.
Eventually, you have created an object: unique, painstaking, and often possessing high design and great beauty. True desktop or portable units, at price points as low as $1,299, can create objects in a 5-inch cubic space. Commercial models can generate larger-scale design prototypes for aerospace and automotive applications, cutting time and cost for successful product development.
Where is 3D printing used today? The key drivers are customer needs for fast-response, highly customized, one-off production.
For industry, 3D printing can enhance design prototypes and modeling for automotive, aerospace, architecture, and other commercial applications from packaging to shoe design. Consider the power of crafting prosthetics, hip implants, or dental crowns based on an individual patient’s body scans.
Try google-ing “wall street journal” and “3d printing,” and you will see results indicating its use in surgery and its application to fashion design.
The acceptance of 3D printing among consumers has supported the growth of passionate online communities. One company in Brooklyn has launched a marketplace where 10,000 individual “shops” present design concepts. When you see an item you like, you can customize and order it. The company has the 3D printing production facility to create and ship the item, sharing the revenue with the shop owner. You can buy jewelry, smart phone cases, fantasy figures, gaming accessories, espresso cups, and flower vases.
So, are we ready for a world where a replicator can replace all our kitchen appliances and spit out our Tuesday morning work outfit? Not yet, but this fascinating technology is moving us in that direction. Keep your eyes open—you may see an example of 3D printing walking down the catwalk, in ruffled white mesh.
Terry Anstine, today’s guest contributor, is one of those leaders who see high-growth segments of the market and chase after them. She advises, “Attend trade shows and educational events, engage people in conversation — it’s a lot more fun than you might think!”
Photo originally published in de zeen magazine.
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