Software

Could 3D printing spell the end of our throw-away culture?

Some remain sceptical about the future of 3D printing, but leading aerospace and defence manufacturers are employing this technology more and more.

Some companies in aerospace are already using 3D printers to make hundreds of complex parts in metal and plastic. Photo: University of Southampton

Written on VS90 flying from Tokyo to London and dispatched to TechRepublic a day later from my home wi-fi at 40Mbps.

We'd all like a greener planet, an end to global warming and the uncertainty of extreme weather patterns. Unfortunately, most industries and organisations take green to mean being more efficient at what they already do.

But we need to do far more than change the light bulbs and move towards questionable energy solutions. Cutting back on waste is one axis, energy saving another, but real recycling is also vital, and growth as we currently define it has to be curtailed.

For over five years a head of steam has been building behind 3D printing and within the past two years industry has adopted it as a viable alternative to machining and forging.

It is estimated that about 0.02 per cent of all manufactured parts are now printed, with some companies in aerospace manufacturing over 300 complex parts using metals and plastics.

Of course the dream is to be able to print whole aircraft, cars, boats and other vehicles, but all that is no doubt a long way off. In the meantime we can expect complex entities such as gear boxes, pumps, turbine blades, manifolds and more to be printed at a fraction of the material and energy cost of anything that has gone before.

And printing something complex, which might be impossible to produce using old fabrication techniques, is just as easy as printing something simple.

But progress demands some new thinking. Cost alone is far too crude a measure on which to base our industry and business decisions, and we need to also account for environmental and social impact.

In that context 3D printing creates more hi-tech jobs and ticks the boxes of material and energy savings. It also cuts back on transport and logistics, storage and last-mile deliveries in a way we have never seen before.

How far could all this go? Imagine your local garage storing designs instead of parts, and printing that new pump you need, on demand and complete with all the latest upgrades and tweaks.

But also contemplate the mutation of the suggestion box into an online designers' corner so that we could all contribute to eradicating those annoying design features that irritate us.

And should your dishwasher need a replacement part, perhaps the repairman will just print a replacement on the spot instead of having to wait for a delivery or drive to collect the item.

To date, all the 3D printers on the market are being produced by companies outside the traditional printing arena. At the same time the 2D desktop printer giants seem to be spectators watching the game develop.

They may be waiting for the opportune moment to move into the sector, but the exponential pace might mean they have already missed their big chance to address the industry, office and home markets.

It's really surprising that the leading suppliers of 3D printers are out of Europe and not the USA or south-east Asia. And in the next phase plastics and metals will be complemented by biological materials and components, which will broaden the engineering possibilities even further.

We are used to seeing metals, plastics, ceramics, glasses and even gem stones such as ruby and diamond bonded into hi-tech components, but biological materials? Well, their inclusion to the list will start a whole new era.

Where will it lead? No one knows for certain, but the implications for medicine, computing and aerospace are likely to be profound.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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