Apr 26 2018

The 3D Printing Revolution

We are in an interesting phase of developing 3D printing technology – the ability to print real objects in three dimensions. The technology clearly works and has applications. The question is – will 3D printing remain a niche technology, or will it revolutionize manufacturing, how consumers obtain certain items, and even introduce new possibilities in medicine and wearable tech?

It’s easy to get carried away with the possibilities, and I think they are all plausible. But often we confuse the mere ability to do something with the cost-effectiveness and practicality of doing so. We may be technologically capable of 3D printing certain consumer goods, but it may just be cheaper and easier to use more traditional methods of manufacturing. We always have to see how technology works out in the real world to see if it will truly be the transformative tech proponents promise, or if it will go the way of the Segue.

There is a steady stream of advances in 3D printing technology, which makes me think we are a long way from seeing the full potential of this technology. Lets take a look at a couple of recent ones.

Thermorph Printing

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have demonstrated the ability to print flat plastic objects that, when heated, will fold into a predetermined three-dimensional shape. The advantage to this approach is that it is cheaper and faster to print the flat pieces than the solid objects. Also, there are many contexts in which it is more practical to store and ship the flat objects.

Possible applications include shipping emergency structures to disaster areas, that can then unfold into needed objects and even buildings just by leaving them out in the sun, or applying heat directly from a heat gun. Small objects can be placed in warm water.

The technique is interesting, exploiting warping that happens from stress lines in thermoplastic. By controlling the lines of stress precisely, the team can control the resulting warping. The rest is akin to origami.

This is exactly the kind of technology that can go either way – it can be incredibly useful, or never progress beyond the novelty stage. The fate of this and similar techniques will depend on a few things: will the cost savings and shipping convenience be sufficient to counterbalance and reduction in quality? Will the quality and reliability be sufficient for specific applications? Will someone develop the “killer app” – the application of this technology that will cause it to take off?

My guess is that if they develop this technology sufficiently, it will find some useful niche applications. I doubt we will be buying our furniture from an Ikea-like store, and instead of assembling them we shine a heat lamp on the contents and they turn themselves into a bookshelf. That would be cool (as anyone who has assembled Ikea furniture can testify), but it seems like we are a long way from that tech.

It seems more likely that, if this technology matures sufficiently, it will find a niche in applications that greatly value the ability to pack objects flat, and don’t really care about aesthetics. NASA, for example, might find uses for this, sending self-unfolding objects to the space station or into orbit (or 3D printing them there). Emergency equipment and shelters were already mentions. The authors also suggest that this technology might be good for making moldings for manufacturing, rather than the final objects themselves.

Printing onto Skin

University of Minnesota researchers demonstrated a technique for 3D printing directly onto human skin. Part of the technological advance is the ability to scan the body part, such as a hand, first so that even if it is moving during the printing process, the printer is able to track the target and keep the printing on target. Using this technique they can print either cells onto skin (demonstrated on a mouse) or electronics.

Potential applications are many. Printing cells directly onto skin has obvious medical applications, such as skin grafting and wound healing. The printed cells could theoretically be the final result, or could be used as a patch while natural healing occurs. Obviously developing medical technology takes time and a lot of research, for safety and efficacy. The studies so far are just proof of concept, and are years away from any potential applications.

Printing electronics directly onto skin would not have to jump through the medical regulatory hoops, and could be ready for application much more quickly. Here the bigger question is – what are the applications. The authors speculate that this technology could be used to print different types of sensors onto the skin, to detect toxins, poisonous gas, radiation, or other potential hazards. These could be applied as needed in the field for soldiers, rescue workers in dangerous zones, or industrial workers in hazardous environments.

You could also potentially print mini-solar panels as needed to power small electronic devices in the field.

This technology seems certain to have only niche applications. And of course it remains to be seen if any of them will pan out, but the potential is intriguing.

What these two technologies demonstrate, even if neither of them turn out to be that useful, is that 3D printing is still in its infancy as a technology. We have yet to explore all the possible ways the technology can be used beyond just printing 3D objects. We are in the exploratory phase of the technology, when it is maximally difficult to predict its future potential. People are clever, and someone may come up with a new way to use the basic technology that will be truly transformative. Or it may fizzle, and never progress beyond small niche applications.

There are of course many examples on both ends of the spectrum. Computers and information technology, for example, have transformed our world. Once we hit upon this new way of doing things, it opened up entire new industries. The hydrogen economy did not pan out, although that technology may still have its day.

If I had to bet I would say that 3D technology will go the way of most similar new technologies – it will be an additional way of doing things, not necessarily replacing any older technology. This is the microwave oven paradigm. Microwaves did not replace other cooking methods, but neither are they a novelty. They are an essential addition to our cooking and heating options, very useful for some applications, but not for others.

3D printing and variations of it will likely find some very useful applications (and it already has). It will become an additional manufacturing tool, but not necessarily replace other methods of manufacturing. I think that outcome is almost certain.

The real question for me is whether or not 3D printers will find a place in the average home. It still seems like it would be very handy to be able to print any object on demand, as long as it was convenient enough and cost effective. But it is also extremely convenient to just go online, buy the object I need, and have it delivered to my home. I am usually able to find anything I need online. I was recently able to find a replacement clip for a strap on a backpack. The internet rarely disappoints. So I am not sure how this will work out. Will there be a 3D printer in every home, just like the microwave? Or will it be more like a specific tool that some people have because they have a specific need or use for it?

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