The way we produce objects is entering a revolution. Using the latest technologies 3D printers can produce custom-designed items basically from scratch. Although mostly still found in design studios, it won’t be long before they are found in the average home. And with new developments coming to market such as on-demand 3D printing consumers will soon benefit from this clever advance in manufacturing.
How does it work?
The 3D printing process lays down layer upon layer of materials, based upon the blueprints from a digital design file, to form a three-dimensional object. A variety of materials can be used, from simple stainless steel, titanium or aluminum; plastics and polymers; glass; plaster; ceramics; or even foods such as chocolate or cheese. The designs employed to create these can either come from a piece of computer-aided design, or a direct replication of an existing product collected via a 3D scanner.
Why is it useful?
This fast and efficient process allows designers to quickly turn ideas into models or prototypes (known as rapid prototyping), and iron out issues in their planning. It also allows manufacturers to produce products on demand to better manage their inventory and reduce the need for storage. One key use for 3D printing is in areas where people do not have ready access to parts or spares so need to produce their own, such as the International Space Station. Practically speaking, 3D printing saves money and materials as it wastes very little in the production process.
What can they make?
The applications for 3D printing are multiplying by the day. As well as its use in prototypes, the technology is regularly used to produce, gifts, furniture, tripods, wax castings for jewellery and toys. Specialist parts for the automotive and aviation industries are printed to order and architects fabricate intricate models of their plans. Looking to the future 3D printing promises to change the nature of manufacturing. In the future customers may download files for printing complex 3D objects at home, such as electronic devices or furniture.
What’s the downside?
Current printers use a large amount of power to produce products, in some cases almost 50 times the amount used by traditional moulding machines. There are also concerns over counterfeiting and illegal replications, for example cheap replicas of branded products or deadly weapons.
3D printing may seem like science-fiction, but with the applications of computer design continually improving it may soon be a simple fact of life for many of us. It’s efficient processes and diverse possibilities are far ahead of our current way of working, once it becomes also cost-effective our manufacturing systems will never be the same again.