Hardware

10 industries 3D printing will disrupt or decimate

As it evolves, 3D printing technology is destined to transform almost every major industry and change the way we live, work, and play in the future.
 
makerbot.jpg
The MakerBot factory is located in Brookyln, New York.
 Image: Louis Seigal
 For better or worse, the 3D printing industry is poised to transform nearly every sector of our lives and jumpstart the next industrial revolution. Sound like a hyperbole? We've compiled a list of 10 major impacts the 3D printing ecosystem will have on businesses, consumers, and the global economy.

If you're just diving into the world of 3D printing, first take a look at my introduction on 3D printing industry basics to quickly get up to speed: 10 facts on 3D printing: Understanding tech's next big game-changer.

SEE: 3D printing: A primer for business and technology professionals

1. Massive environmental impacts

Traditional manufacturing is often wasteful and dirty. In many ways, 3D printing lessens that waste and the carbon footprint manufacturing has on the Earth.

  • Fewer wasted materials: Only the raw materials needed to create the object—be it plastic filament, metal powder, or carbon fiber—are used. Using biodegradable PLA plastic filament in fused deposition modeling printers like MakerBot is a good start.
  • Possibility of longer life spans: Product parts can be replaced with 3D printing (or at least, that's the idea for the future), so the entire product doesn't have to be thrown away and replaced each time it malfunctions.
  • Less transport: Products often travel across many continents to get to their final destination. With 3D printing, the production and assembly can be local. Raw materials are the only things that will ship, and they take up far less space.
  • Fewer unsold products: If a company makes a product, the ones that are discontinued or not sold often end up piling up in landfills. 3D printing can improve this because companies can make them as needed.

This is all great in theory, but research shows 3D printers themselves have inefficiences that make them less environmentally friendly. An inkjet 3D printer wastes 40 to 45 percent of its ink. And if a printer isn't turned off or unplugged, it uses an excessive amount of electricity. As the printers become more accessible, manufacturers will need to figure out how to improve these issues.

2. Creating a new art medium

The "maker" movement is getting more niche—now we can call it the artisanal movement. 3D printers are being used to create new types of modern art, like this 3D headdress created by artist Joshua Harker, which debuted at 3D Printshow in New York City. The printers can also recreate pieces that aren't accessible to everyone around the world, which helps museums. For instance, the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has teamed with Fujifilm to recreate 3D replicas of several Van Gogh paintings.

3. Innovation in education

A few months ago, MakerBot announced MakerBot Academy, a crowdfunded plan to get a 3D printer into every school in America. "It can change the whole paradigm of how our children will see innovation and manufacturing in America," MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis said in the announcement. The company also recently announced a plan to turn colleges and universities into MakerBot Innovation Centers. Starting with State University of New York at New Palz, the centers are equipped with 30 3D printers along with several 3D scanners to help train engineers, architects, and artists and increase motivation for growth in the industry.

4. 3D printing in zero-gravity

One of the most logical uses for 3D printing is printing parts, tools, and other gadgets for astronauts while they're in space. It can also help accelerate the building of parts for the International Space Station. To address these problems, Made In Space was formed by a group of space veterans and 3D printing enthusiasts. They have partnered with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center to launch the first 3D printer in space. It will manufacture parts in zero-gravity, and the hope is to make space missions more self-sufficient.  

On a related note, an engineer won a grant from NASA last year to prototype a machine that will print food that's better than the freeze-dried stuff astronauts normally eat. Watch the 3D printer make a pizza below:

 

5. Revolutionizing mass manufacturing

Mass production is the biggest challenge in 3D printing, but with the adoption of large-scale printers and rapidly evolving technology to produce parts faster, the printers will completely disrupt traditional manufacturing in many industries:

  • Food: Anything that exists in liquid or powder form can be 3D printed, so naturally, printed food is one of the next big conversations.
  • Military: The machinery for the military is often customized and replacements must be made quickly. A 3D gun has already been printed, so it's only a matter of time before the technology catches on in this industry.
  • Electronics: The size, shape, and materials used to make electronics make this industry a natural candidate for 3D printing.
  • Toys: Home 3D printers and open source design will change the way children create and play.
  • Automotive: This industry is already utilizing the technology—Ford reportedly uses 3D printing to test parts. High-end and smaller auto companies will benefit first, though 3D printing could improve the efficiency of making replacement parts for any company.

6. Changing medicine and healthcare

Bioprinting is one of the fastest-growing areas of 3D printing. The technology uses inkjet-style printers to make living tissue. Organovo, the most well-known company who does this, plans to commercialize 3D-printed liver tissue sometime this year. They have also partnered with the National Eye Institute and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences to print eye tissue.

Researchers at Human Methodist Research Institute said they have created a more efficient way to create cells. Called Block Cell Printing, this process allows 100 percent of the cells to live instead of the 50 to 80 percent that normally survive during the current process. All of this naturally raises questions about the development of complex organs, so bioprinting is destined to turn into a big debate due to moral, ethical, and political concerns.

7. Transforming the home

Humans love their home conveniences, and home 3D printers are becoming smaller and more affordable—MakerBot's smallest printer is just over $1,300. People can print custom jewelry, household goods, toys, and tools to whatever size, shape, or color they want. They will also be able to print make replacement parts right at home, rather than  ordering them and waiting for them to be shipped. According to research firm Strategy Analytics, home 3D printing could evolve into a $70 billion industry per year by 2030.

SEE: Photos: 3D printers and the amazing and quirky things they make

8. Reaching disconnected markets worldwide

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The Gigabot 3D printer is larger, more affordable, and is being used to print logos for StartUp Chile, a Chilean government program for emerging entrepreneurs.
 Image: re:3D
 Developing countries are often completely disconnected from global supply chains for even the most basic products, but 3D printing has the ability to bring them into the loop. The best example of this is Austin-based startup re:3D, which had a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign last May with Gigabot, an industrial-sized, affordable printer designed to work in developing countries. The company has a localized presence in Latin America, specifically partnering with StartUp Chile, a Chilean government program that empowers local tech entrepreneurs. The Gigabot will be used for many of the projects in Chile, like 3D design internships, manufacturing clothing, and experimenting with printing using recyclable materials.

Another way 3D printing can help developing countries is through partnerships with 3D printing researchers. For instance, many countries in the developing world are in dire need of prosthetic limbs, but don't have access to the technology or the education that is required to make their own. A Canadian professor is creating a way to make a prosthetic limb that is about 80 percent as good as one that could be made by hand. The lab is sending the prosthetics to disabled Ugandans.

9. Impacts on the global economy

The 3D printing industry will have far-reaching effects on the global economy. McKinsey Global Institute recently released a report that said 3D printing will cause major disruptions in the global economy by 2025. The analysis firm predicts it will bring about new product development cycles as the systems become cheaper. More companies will adopt the technology and product creation will focus on client feedback and customer-centered design. The industry is also reducing the cost of of entry into markets, allowing very niche businesses to pop up everywhere.

China is already investing in the technology to rival this rapid growth rate in the U.S. and Europe. In June 2013, the country announced a gigantic 3D printer they claimed was the world's largest at the time at 1.8 meters in diameter, and there are rumors they have plans to build even larger ones. It's not clear what impact the technology will have on the economy yet, but it could give China a competitive edge in domestic production. Because 3D printing promotes localized production, this will also affect China's current large-scale manufacturing industry.

10. Intellectual property threats

Sharing 3D printing schematics on websites like Thingiverse and Shapeways seems easy enough, but free designs are bound to cause issues with intellectual property as 3D printing becomes more mainstream. Most of the designs are unpatented, so they can be copied repeatedly and sold by anyone. Expensive or designer objects can also be reverse-engineered or replicated and sold at a cheaper price.

Now, established companies are starting to go after users of these sites, arguing that they are infringing on copyright or violating intellectual property laws. However, most of these designers are building upon original designs, making them better, or localizing products to better suit the needs of people in their area. It will be an ongoing conversation. The industry will have to figure out how to make sure large corporations don't squash entrepreneurs and designers in their fight to protect copyright laws.

Also see

About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She writes about the people behind some of tech's most creative innovations and in-depth features on innovation and sustainability.

34 comments
pmshah
pmshah

Here is a case in point. The hinge on my Whirlpool front loading washing broke due to bad design AND poor choice of material (zinc casting). The company offered to replace it (on payment of course) with an even worse one (does not fit right) at a cost of $ 10/- for the part + $ 8/- for labour.  You guessed it, I live in India ! If I could simply print it at a reasonable cost I would not be junking an otherwise functional washing machine. I am sure there are a whole lot of people in situation like mine around the globe.

joserbn
joserbn

Somehow topic 1 regarding less waste reminds me of the paperless office promise and arguably people now use more paper than before.

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

Consider that most of what we interact with in the world is made up of 6 things: Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Sulfur.  If I had a really good printer, capable of treating these ingredients like Legos, I'd have a machine that could make nearly anything I can imagine out of nearly anything I put into it. 

bobmattfran
bobmattfran

Printing food, please, please don't make me laugh. We already eat far too much processed food which already tastes like plastic. This idea as far as I am concerned is a retrograde step. Give me naturally grown food any day.

richard.bredero.nl
richard.bredero.nl

Military use. The possibilities go beyond merely printing weapon parts. With 3D printers becoming as common as coffeemakers, cutlery and clothing, and proliferating into all aspects of life they become potentially lethal weapons of their own. It only takes a good hack and a devious plan to make them synthesise lethal substances (food or medication delivring printers eg), or build lethal flaws into the utensils (or weapons) they produce.

Pooua
Pooua

I've been watching developments in 3D printing. So far, I haven't seen anything that makes it more than a niche tool or toy. Even the simplest products aren't very high quality, and complicated products (e.g., complex machines) are rare. Some of that could be worked out with improvements to technology, but, as I see it, the main problem that 3D printing has is scalability. It simply is too slow. Add to that the monosyllabic materials vocabulary, and I'd have to say this technology is going to be a toy outside a few niches for a while.


My glasses frame broke a few months ago. This should be a simple fix for a 3D printer. So, I looked online for a ready-made solution. All I found were wacky frames; nothing that would fix my glasses. I could probably come up with a system that could do that, and maybe it would make a successful kiosk in malls across the world, but this is such a basic task, yet 3D printing seems strained to meet it.

Shansy
Shansy

As a programmer in industrial automation 3d printers are toys. The parts created are show pieces. Printing a gun is one thing. Creating a tool suitable to fire accurately, consistently with a long lifespan and safety record is beyond most metal fabrication shops. It's a health and safety nightmare. Choking parts for small children, parts flying into eyes. Not to mention the strength and lubrication required for many components.

I don't think the arcticle writer understands the complexities of engineering.

Isn't it just a motorised hot glue gun ?

wendygoerl
wendygoerl

"Possibility of longer life spans:"

Actually, manufacturing is deliberately going the other way. Back in the day, a motor starts wearing, you could repack the bearings. Nowadays, the motor's sealed, you've got to replace the whole thing. Go look at some of the "teardown" articles. How many are difficult or impossible to repair because parts (too fine or of a material that can't be made affordably on a printer) get destroyed in the disassembly?

tvmuzik
tvmuzik

What started out as a hobby is quickly becoming an industry. 

I don't see what all the fuss is about.

If anything, this will create jobs for the next and future generations.

gathagan
gathagan

This isn't alchemy.

Regardless of what you wish to make with a 3D printer, you still have to have the raw materials.

So the shipping industry, for example, will continue to operate.

And, as others have pointed out, there are far too many items that need to be mass-produced in order to make their costs acceptable to the average person.


raphGB
raphGB

If my industry was decimated by new technology I'd be relieved; that would leave 90% intact. 

Glenn Castle
Glenn Castle

What happened between naming this article "10 industries" and the writing of the article?  These are 10 random thoughts loosely related, at best.

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

Here's what makes this tech unlike anything that's come before:  Eventually, and soon thanks to open sourcing, there will be a 3D printer that can make 3d Printers.  1 printer can become 2, can become 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc.  This has never been possible before.  Ever.  The importance of this can not be overstated.  My microwave can't make other microwaves.  My typewriter can't make other typewriters.  

If I have a printer building houses, exactly to my specifications, I won't have to pay a human to build them.  If I can have a printer that can take ground up worms and print out a hamburger, I can feed myself.  If I can print out solar panels, I can have nearly free electricity.  The ultimate end to this tech is a replicator, a machine that builds with atoms like a child builds with legos.  Yes, it's a long way off, but the fact that we have something that even remotely resembles a replicator should send shivers down the backs of anyone who watches Star Trek. 


"If by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it will happen, his predictions would sound so far fetched, so absurd, that everyone would laugh him to scorn."  Arthur C. Clarke


"Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic."  Arthur C. Clarke

M Wagner
M Wagner

I full-blown "replicator" is still a long way off. 

M Wagner
M Wagner

The potential is HUGE but it doesn't have to be disruptive.  If you own a 3D printer, you can BUY the file holding the printing instructions just like you buy a copyrighted e-book, a patented software program, or whatever else.  The greatest negative impact will be on shippers who will no longer have the opportunity to ship items than can be printed on a consumer 3D printer.  The U.S. Postal Service is already seeing the impact of electronic communications on their business.

marcovj
marcovj

This still is a pipe dream, it is more a sales pitch from the 3D printers manufacturers. I have been in Manufacturing for many years and still do not see the economy for mass production, other than for some specific niche products or prototyping.

cybershooters
cybershooters

Direct Laser Metal Sintering (DLMS) is one of the things that is going to change manufacturing forever.  I reckon by 2025 you'll be able to buy a DLMS machine at your local hardware store.  Once people can 3-D print in metal as well as plastic on a broad basis, the world is going to change forever.

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@bobmattfran Unfortunately, naturally grown food isn't available everywhere.  I envision packets of dehydrated amino acids, from which anything could be freshly made by recombining the amino acids into whatever you want. 

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@Shansy sure, the Fused Deposition Modeling (glue gun type) 3D printers are pretty much for knick knacks (though a chess set featuring my family as pieces is a pretty cool idea). When the patents started expiring for this type of printers back in 2009, the average cost dropped from about 14,000 USD to about 300 USD, just 2% of what it had been.

The kind of 3D printing that excites me is the Selective Layered Sintering, with which you can create just about anything, including (but certainly not limited to) NASA's 3D printed fuel injector. Some important patents for this type of printing recently expired about two weeks ago.

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@wendygoerl Now what if I could print out a gear system from plastic.  When I wore out, I could grind the plastic back into powder (or melt it, depending on my printing method), and use it to reprint the motor. The same 2 kg of plastic could be reused, over and over. 

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@tvmuzik why do people have jobs?  to make money.

why do they need to make money?  to buy things, like food, shelter, clothing, energy.

but what if I could print solar panels out of carbon, and print a hamburger from the worms I grew under my sink, and the house I live in was build by a robot on wheels?  then the price of everything would drop.  Right now nearly everyone in the world can afford a cell phone, which is technology more complex then that which landed Man on the moon.  Eventually, everything will be so affordable as to make needing to work 40+ hours per week a thing of the past, assuming one doesn't want more than they need.

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@gathagan What if the material was carbon?  Carbon comes in many forms, from oil to diamond, and is widely available (I think there's even technology in the works to pull it directly from the air, sort of a global air purifier).  IF we could print with carbon, we could take nearly anything and build nearly anything.  It would be a Star Trek replicator, or as close to one as the laws of physics would allow...

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@M Wagner I imagine that's what someone said about commercially available personal computers back in the 50's.  It took one generation to get them into homes, and now, one generation after that, 1.6 personal computers in every home in America, and they're thousands of times cheaper, thousands of times smaller, and thousands of times more powerful... 

LNMagic
LNMagic

@M Wagner Agreed.  3D printers are slow, as are CNC mills.  Most 3D printers won't make anywhere near the same quality found in a mass-produced product made through traditional methods, but it does provide a much lower entry to market than tools such as injection molds.

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@M Wagner It's disruptive because it disrupts how we've done things up to this point, much like the internet's impact on the USPS.  Gone will be shipping lines and factories.  People will buy and sell ideas rather than goods. 

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@marcovj And personal computers I every home was a pipe dream in the 60's. There's now an average of 1.6 computers in every home in America, regardless of income.   And a microwave in every kitchen was a pipe dream in the 50's. Same with cell phones in the 80's. 

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

@cybershooters Finally, someone who sees to potential of this technology to shatter the paradigms we've come to hold as sacred.  It's noteworthy that Cornell grad students recently printed out a working speaker with multiple materials. print up, plug in, jam out.

Dhowes85
Dhowes85

not motor, gear system.  apologies.

joserbn
joserbn

@Dhowes85 @cybershooters

Have you got the link to that Cornell work?

Wow, we could order sandwiches this way with an edible library! Or pizzas! Take that, delivery middleman!


 Or have a really reproducible way to do fine finger buffet items. Take that mr posh chef!

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