How 3D printing is changing the world

It’s the end of 2013. We were supposed to have flying cars, robot housekeepers and elaborate meals at the push of a button. We don’t. But the escalating excitement around 3D printing and additive manufacture makes an imagined future feel increasingly close.

It can sound like science-fiction – using 3D printing to provide pizza for a no gravity pizza party on a space station; printing replacement washers at midnight when the hardware store is closed; printing weapons or prescription medication in your own home; printing replacement human organs. These possibilities are equally remarkable and alarming. However despite the novelty, 3D printing is not a new technology. The concept has been around for more than thirty years - an early 3D printer was patented in 1984. Moreover, while it seems fantastic in practice, the concept of assembling layers of a material such as a resin or powder to create a product is not a giant leap from well-known paper printing techniques.

The concept

Fundamentally, 3D printing or additive manufacture is the process of making a 3D object from a digital model. Traditional manufacture generally involves providing a base material and then removing the material where it is not needed through a subtraction process such as cutting. In contrast, 3D printing involves adding material where it is required. The process starts from nothing and creates something.

This conceptual difference has many benefits for producing products with minimal excess material. Further, 3D printing greatly expands the ability to customise and to run small batches, while allowing for increased complexity.

Transforming industry and commercialisation

3D printing opens up exciting possibilities for rapid prototyping. A complex working prototype can be created from a digital model in a way that is both cost-effective and quick. This can be the impetus for a customer or corporate head to embrace an innovation or compound structure they couldn’t otherwise envisage working.

There is also a revolution in the area of mass customisation. Traditionally, altering a product requires retooling which can be prohibitively expensive for a single item or small batch. Using 3D printing, changes are made through an alteration in the digital model. As 3D printing is further commercialised, individual customisation of products will be more broadly available. Creative variations to meet individual needs will become dominant in many markets.

Further, additive manufacture can be utilised to create complex, finely detailed products which would be unattainable using traditional methods. 

Intellectual Property Aspects

The technology of 3D printing makes it feasible that individuals will manufacture products for their own use, even if the products are protected by a patent or design registration. This is a concern in intellectual property protection. Identifying these infringers and taking action against them will prove difficult, costly and time consuming. Action against individuals may simply be unworkable. 

It is more likely that action will be taken against the originator or distributor of the digital model from which the protected product is manufactured. The issue here is that the digital model could be made anywhere in the world. Enforcement requires protection in the country from which the model originated. Careful decisions will need to be made about international protection keeping in mind risks and costs. 

The music industry was forced to make changes when faced with the digital distribution of music. Industries based on tangible products will need to undergo related transformations to protect innovators and creators. 

Customising the future

As the price of high quality 3D printers decreases, the technology will become more prevalent both for individuals and businesses. This should mean more products can be produced close to the place of consumption and that more truly individualised products will be available. Businesses will grow up around customisable products which best meet individual needs.

Industries will need to keep ahead of this shift. Even in the provision of tangible products it will no longer be a matter of meeting the needs of the majority of a customer base, but of meeting the needs of each person or group within that customer base. 

Innovation will always be critical, especially when providing truly customisable products. In fact, innovations which might previously have been considered too specialised for large scale production will become more significant. However if a product is reproducible, businesses will need to seek opportunities to protect the intellectual property in their innovative products in new ways. 

The terms “3D printing” and “additive manufacture” are used interchangeably here. In the industry, there is some nuance to the terms relating to the complexity of the product or process. “3D printing” is used more frequently for less complex short or medium run manufacturing while “additive manufacture” tends to be used for manufacture of complex structural components.