Why write another article about 3D printing?
The internet already offers an abundance of information on the subject. Mountains, in fact.
Everyone has been talking and writing about it. It seems like every other week there’s a new research program, a new project and a new supplier emerging. Also, democratized developments like RepRap and its spin-off’s have built a vast knowledge base in the peer production realm. All True.
But there may be more to be said…
These days we can print out 3D objects in plastic, metal, ceramics and even organic material. We can print in just about any shape we can imagine.
All this suggests that we will soon be able to print out trains, planes, automobiles and even complex body parts. We also hear claims like; “We will print our own phones” and “Conventional manufacturing techniques will soon be rendered obsolete”.
3D printing is the holy grail to manufacturing and the distribution of products.
Well…yes and no.
Talk is cheap and the web has a way of taking that to the next level. The internet flattens things out. Sure, truth has a way of eventually rising above it all. Only the most robust of ideas will move up through the ranks and prevail. Moving from perception to proof is what brings value to something. It, at the very least, makes it more reasonable and tangible to talk about.
But that process takes time.
In the mean time how does one separate what is real from what is rumor or just plain wrong?
Conceptually, 3D printing can produce anything. But at this stage the technology presents the ability to print out the shape of an object. It can do this in a certain material and within certain accuracy. By itself that’s incredible. And, for many types of products that may be enough to get the job done. Yet, for most, there is typically a lot more involved in the manufacturing and production of functional products. The Star Trek replicator?
Not just yet.
Engines of Revolution
Labeled with words like “disruptive” and “revolution”, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing technologies as they are referred to these days, are actually not that new. The concept is old, very old. In fact, many of the patents related to the latest core technologies over the past 25 years have expired or will soon expire.
What is actually new here is the recent accessibility of these technologies to the masses. At least to some level. Specifically, low cost 3D printers for home use and 3D print service providers. You can now own your own 3D printer. You can also use a 3D print service provider which can provide the latest and greatest technologies without having to actually own a high-end and costly machine.
The impact of 3D printing on industry is undeniable. Then again…just as it was more than 25 years ago. But the revolution? Well…it is not only the technology.
The real revolution is more about accessibility and, in particular, it’s about awareness.
More specifically, awareness about how we make things, how we think about making things and how we think about things that we make. No riddle intended.
A Revolution to Shape Ideas and Culture
Rapid prototyping, free form manufacturing, additive manufacturing and 3D printing. You could dispute the differences like the different flavors of ice cream. But they, more or less, melt down to reveal the same idea.
Technology aside, the significance here is the main stream “awareness” that this brings about. Again, that by itself is the revolution. How we convert an idea into tangible and functional form.
As the hype maxes out and the debris settles it starts to reveal this awareness in a deeper and more profound way. The technology starts to diverge, it diversifies. We start exploring how it might provide solution in areas from art to research and beyond. Areas we did not think of before. And, that is when really interesting things start to happen.
3D printing is now more tangible to us in our hands, minds and in society.
It typically takes about 30 years before a really new idea can move up from concept to culture. Exponential growth. Suddenly its there. It rises very slowly and then seems to jump the curve. Jump into view. Something that moves into our minds and effects the way we do things and the ways we think about how to make things.
Moving into our culture.
As a species distinguished as tool-makers it is awareness about these things, these ideas, these technologies that fundamentally inspire and empower us.
The reason these mean so much to us is because they connects us and our worlds.
If you think about it we live and interact in 3 worlds. The interaction between the world within our minds, the virtual world within our computers and that of the real world where will all live in. Something like 3D printing enhances our ability to connect and interact between these worlds. That means a lot to us as it relates to our individualism, our independence and our freedom. Liberating our imagination.
It’s not that long ago that 3D printing was considered more of a prototype method only. Something that allowed us to prototype new things very quickly. The ability to rapidly convert something from our mind into the real world. Something we can then all touch. Rapid prototyping.
In many cases you could argue that it was only that. Convincing others that 3D printing can also be used to build real world end-products seemed near impossible. Those barriers have melted away and the situation has flipped as the idea becomes more clear, touches more people and the awareness grows.
Such “awareness” pushes and even catapults the development focus of a new technology. That is what makes it great. What makes it powerful. We have just witnessed it before with the PC industry. 3D printing is now laying down another infrastructure. One that allows these technologies to diversify and be applied to an ever wider and deeper range of uses.
3D printing technologies are rapidly advancing and diversifying in applications. True. But like any revolution, what is real and what is rumor become intermixed as things move toward a critical mass. Belief and perception typically precede objective observation and proof. Claims overshoot reality. Things can become confusing.
Its part of the process of innovation to imagine that what we don’t have or can’t be done…yet. Necessity will do the rest.
The success of one industry is typically the result of the success of another. One is built on the other. The magic happens when their streams combine. The merit of one embraces the other and that can form the seeds to exponential growth.
For Rapid Prototyping, 3D printing, it was the PC that provided the means. The success of the PC was bringing increasingly more powerful computational power to the masses at increasingly lower cost. This opened the door for this 3D printing technology to emerge. And, like the PC, it then moves it from concept to culture as it is doing so today. 30 years in the making.
Like before, that process will repeated itself. 3D printing will form the basis, the foundation for other technologies to be embraced and rise. Robotics?…Maybe. 3D printing can provide incredibly rapid solutions here to a large and emerging audience. Certainly in the realm of democratized developers.
Hammering Things Out
You can 3D print the exact shape of an aircraft but that does not mean that it is also going to fly.
Products are made using materials. Materials have certain properties which allow the product to work as it was designed to. These properties include things like strength, toughness and appearance. Its not just about the shape of a product. Its about the shape and how well the materials used in a product allow it to serve some function.
Use a hammer to drive a nail into a piece of wood. Depending on your aim you will hit the nail with hammer without bending the nail. In most cases, not a problem. A trivial, age-old process that most anyone has done before.
Now lets do the same with 3D metal printed products. But don’t be surprised if the nail and/or even the hammer dents, breaks or even shatters on impact.
3D printers can print a metal hammer and a nail. True. But creating functional products involves more than just creating the shape of an object.
There are very specific technologies involved in the manufacturing of something even as trivial as a nail. Nails are typically made of rolled, cold-drawn metal. The process involves rolling and stretching the nail metal and aligning its metal crystals in such a way that allows it to become more rigid, springy, tough or otherwise less brittle. The truth of the matter is, you never really hit the nail head on. But due to its forging it is forgiving and springs back in most cases. In the worst case it bends but won’t break, let alone shatter.
The slender high heels of women’s shoes need to be strong, allow some flex but be rigid enough for support. The heel should not break off at the slightest unevenness in the floor. The front fork of a motorcycle needs to be springy. It needs to allow slight bending when loaded yet instantly bend back as well. Like the nail it should not break. The tires of your car need to grip in a multitude of conditions, produce minimal noise and also have good wear resistance. Again, products must meet many demands in order fit some application. The materials used have been designed with certain properties using various manufacturing techniques in order to make the product work like it should. It is not just the shape of a product that matters.
Think about that for a moment the next time you hear about 3D printed firearms.
To many, 3D printing firearms is about freedom, individuality and independence. It is also about the building of perception that proves the merit of the technology. At least to some level. An incentive to prove something. But I’m not sure if a lot of engineers would want to wrap their hands around one to test fire just yet.
3D print a phone? Yes. The basic shell components only. Something to customize it to your taste. To represent your individuality. But only as a special production spin-off. Contemporary production techniques will remain pretty much the same. Unchanged. Print the chips and touch screen and a lot of its other components? Don’t think so. At least not any time soon. The CPU’s and other chips are manufactured on state of art machines which dial in to high nano-meter precision. Starting cost for such a machine…32 million Dollars.
What these examples illustrate is that while the 3D printed shape of an object may suffice for an application there are more factors involved in making something work than would seem. This does not mean that 3D printing technology is not applicable for real world products. Actually, in the case of of metal printing technology, the development and the properties of these metals are advancing rapidly. It simply means that the technology to induce certain specific and required properties in 3D printed materials might not be there yet. Or, there may be a lot more involved to get there. These property requirements can certainly not be overlooked.
It is not just about making something work. It is also about making it work well. Certainly in every sense you would expect the non-3D printed version to work. There are also many other factors involved in manufacturing and production. What about production time, cost and output?
3D printing offers amazing manufacturing solutions. With many more advancements ahead. This is just the beginning. Again, this is just the beginning.
There is still a lot to do.