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.
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.
8. Reaching disconnected markets worldwideDeveloping 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.
- 3D printing: A primer for business and technology professionals (Tech Pro Research)
- 10 facts on 3D printing: Understanding tech's next big game-changer
- Photos: 3D printers and the amazing and quirky things they make
- Bioprinting human organs and tissue: Get ready for the great 3D printer debate (ZDnet)
- 3D Printers Will Soon Change The World, If It's Not Strangled In A Lawyered Up World (Forbes)
- MakerBot unveils 3D printer 'innovation centers' (SmartPlanet)
Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.