The 3D printing industry has garnered a reputation for having suffered a ruthless cycle of inflated interest that never quite amounted to what was expected of it. This was true, in part, in the case of the large, slow, and expensive machines that we first saw on the market. However, additive manufacturing technology has since developed enormously with focus having turned toward smaller, desktop 3D printers. In fact, these desktop printers, which are increasingly fast and precise, have seen a 34 percent increase in worldwide shipping over the last year.
These sophisticated and compact printers hold great potential in a wide range of sectors, and as such, are set to shape the future of 3D printing. In order for the industry as a whole to continue to grow, printing manufacturers need to be receptive to the demands of customers. With sales of desktop printers increasing, it’s clear that ease of use, portability and speed are crucial to customers in sectors ranging from fashion to dentistry.
Bolstering your Business
Perhaps one of the most defining characteristics of the future of 3D printing will be its business applications. All manner of sectors can expect to see these printers shaping the way that their businesses run on a day-to-day basis. As printers become smaller, more affordable and easier to use, 3D printing will become a ubiquitous element in many industries.
Prototyping and design are business processes that stand to benefit from great efficiencies with the involvement of 3D printing technology. In architecture and engineering, for example, the creation of perfectly scaled models has typically been outsourced to third party manufacturers, and has often been considered a lengthy and costly process. 3D printers allow the architect or engineer to create prototypes herself, in-house, and in much less time. The technology also allows architects to trial and error the viability of a model in a computer screen, before they are quickly translated into a tangible product. This is just one example of an industry that stands to benefit from smaller and simpler 3D printing.
3D printing also holds great potential for the fashion and textiles industry, particularly with regard to customisation. While 3D printing has typically been associated with plastic and metal products, developments in technology have enabled printing using various fabrics and textiles. Imagine, for example, you see an item you like but the fabric or cut just isn’t quite right. The ability to print a version slightly altered to specific measurements, or in a preferred fabric or colour, could be completely revolutionary for retailers. By reducing the overproduction of unsold items, and diminishing lost sales on account of poor fit, 3D printing offers the clothing manufacturing sector the promise of vastly increased efficiencies.
The medical uses of 3D printing have been well documented as profoundly revolutionary and as such, will be a key use of 3D printing in the future. The industry has already used additive manufacturing to create many different life-changing solutions including, but certainly not limited to, prosthetic limbs for war survivors, skin for burn victims and reconstructed facial features for road-accident victims.
The future of this technology within this sector is set to be characterised by a focus on children. Historically, one of the biggest limitations for medical professionals in fitting children with prosthetic limbs or airway splints has been that children grow so fast that these devices have to replaced frequently, which can be extremely expensive. By creating a model using a 3D printer, a prosthetic hand, for example, can be scaled and rescaled as the child grows and printed each time for a fraction of the price. Furthermore, surgery on children’s vital organs has long been considered high-risk because they are much smaller than adults and therefore the possibility of human error is greater. Surgeons have been able to print 3D versions of children’s hearts, for example, in order to practice and plan procedures beforehand.
The dental industry has also seen 3D printing revolutionise many of their traditional processes. Dentists are able to print 3D moulds of the patient’s mouth based on a scan, and have more recently been able to rapidly produce perfectly fitting crowns and bridges for patients in-house. In the future, as printers become more affordable and easier to use, we will see 3D printing pervade its way into many more dental offices.
Investing in the Nation’s Future
Another defining characteristic of the future of 3D printing is the expected proliferation of these technologies in teaching children and students. For younger children, this could mean printing educational toys, historical artefacts or 3D maps of topography of areas to learn from in the classroom. For older students, this could mean 3D printing copies of a heart or a kidney to dissect and study in biology classes.
Perhaps the greatest way that we will see 3D printing shape the education sector will be a shift towards learning about 3D printing in itself. The myriad of uses for additive manufacturing across many different sectors and industries means that students planning on going into all sorts of professions will need to understand how these devices work, and how they have changed the way that these industries function from day-to-day. We will see students being taught about the various applications of 3D printing in schools, so as to prepare them for a future where are likely to encounter these machines regularly.
So what does the industry need to do?
It is clear that there are a vast range of uses and applications of these technologies that will ensure that 3D printing has great disruptive potential in the future, but in order to reach this stage, the industry as a whole needs to take action.
The clunky and hard to use machines that we initially saw on the market have a limited scope of use, and will not be able to carry the industry forward. Compact, rapid printers and – importantly – accessible models will define the 3D printing industry for the foreseeable future. Businesses and educational institutions are already beginning to see the benefits of efficiency that these machines can bring to them in terms of saving money and time, reducing waste and fundamentally changing the way that we learn. The medical industry has also already embraced additive manufacturing and is applying its uses to develop life-saving technologies.
The future for 3D is extremely promising, and the sales figures underpin the industry’s aspirations. Ultimately, in order to fully reach its greatest potential, the industry must focus on bringing efficient and easy-to-use machines to the wide range of industries who can make truly valuable use of them.
Fernando Hernandez, European MD of XYZ Printing
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