Software investigate

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.

70 comments
rattabot
rattabot

3d printer companies like makerbot and 3dstuffmakers manufactures high quality 3d printers. 3d printing is a new technology to print real 3d objects

peter
peter

But that is always the way....and any tech change causes some initial problems that are dwarfed by the benefits of the end game.

jdudeck
jdudeck

This article sounds to me a bit like the talk back in the 50's about flying cars. How in the world does a washing machine repairman carrying around a fabrication machine make any sense? It will always be more practical and cost-effective to just bring the part from the warehouse. I don't see how it has advantages from the "green" perspective, either. Maintaining, transporting, and feeding such a machine requires a whole energy-consuming infrastructure.

peter
peter

Science and technology are real. Laws and financial systems are man made and are always changed by technological progress.

peter
peter

Perhaps you could read again: "It’s really surprising that the leading suppliers of 3D printers are out of Europe and not the USA" NO Correction Required

Thummp3r
Thummp3r

I design and manufacture Printed Circuits. In my field, this has been a dream for dozens of years. No more $175K CNC drills, no more chemical plating lines, no more wastewater treatment. The idea goes on...Software that we use to design circuit boards no longer need to use layers. Circuits can travel at angles through the board. Coils can be embedded. No more 'feed through holes'. In the second generation, why not have the printer use resistive, inductive, and capacative dyes to embed passives into the circuits. In the third generation, ICs. A top line pick and place now can place a two lead component of the size 0.010"X0.005" accurately...within less than 0.001 inch. Why not place and embed ICs? There would be no need for all the protective and bulky encapsulation for ICs. The IC die could be incorporated directly into the board. We'll work on connectors on another day. Was this worth reading?...Your opinions would be greatly accepted.

YetAnotherBob
YetAnotherBob

the Author doesn't seem to be aware of any of the producers/sellers of 3D printers other than those located in Europe. There are also manufacturers of 3D printers in the US and in the Asia/Pacific region. The products vary from laser cutting or sintering units to metal/ceramic/glass/plastic dispensing units to home/hobby units. Materials can include nylon, corn or soy derived plastics, and even cheese or starch based depositors. I have even seen edible dishes produced. For volume, though, these units are primarily used to produce prototypes. Casting and machining are still less expensive for mass production.

elleno
elleno

"We’d all like a greener planet, an end to global warming and the uncertainty of extreme weather patterns." Guess you did not see the irony in your "Written on VS90 flying from Tokyo to London" when you rambled on about GW. The whole point of the connected revolution is that you don't really need to go there. But perhaps you are somehow special.......have a larger carbon footprint allowance than the rest of us.

maszsam
maszsam

Print a part on the spot for a dishwasher? Or any other part for that matter. You obviously have no clue about manufacturing. Let me see lugg a large complex machine probably requiring 240 or 440 volt set up, that probably needs to run as much as possbile to pay for itself and then have a guy wait a couple of hours or more for a part to finish. And oh yeah now you need a person who is a millright, a machinist with specialized cnc skills, an electrician and a dish washer repair person. Bloody brillant! 3D printers almost certianly have a great future and may do fabulous things, but makeing a screw for a dish washer or being portable probably isn't it. Also wtf is the green garbage? Liars, dip sticks and american liberals, think the answer to naturally occuring and or man influenced climate change is to live in the stone age, even though living in the stone age didn't seem to help the Clovis people when the climate changed, or the Neanderthals, or the Anasazi. How about we handle excess radiation from space the same way we handle excess radiation on the planet: Use shielding. What a load of tripe.

wjohanne
wjohanne

> the implications for medicine, computing and aerospace are likely to be profound. I have heard that replacement joints (knees /hips /etc.) are being printed for people and are being "made to measure" for individuals rather than off-the-shelf products.

gmpvanz
gmpvanz

The concept of 3D printing is fantastic. The reality of it, as with any breakthrough technology or other advance, can have a great deal of impact and consequence beyond itself that is difficult for many to see, and virtually impossible to certainly predict. Other posters have mentioned patent issues, piracy, manufacturing jobs. The maturity and viability of the technology is one thing. It's "environmental and social impact" mushrooms much farther, and is not necessarily a clean trade-off. OK, so if this becomes viable, it could reduce cost and environmental impacts of shipping -- but there are a lot of jobs in transportation and logistics too. Doesn't mean it shouldn't happen, but I doubt there's been a 'breakthrough' yet that didn't have unseen consequences. There may be 'net win' scenarios, but there are never 'everybody wins' scenarios. Jobs & occupations have had massive reductions or disappeared altogether before (anybody know a chimney sweep? How about a cooper (barrel maker)? Not nearly as many blacksmiths as there used to be, nor punch-card operators for something a little more current). The relative disruptiveness of a particular technology or innovation breakthrough can indicate it's impact on employment, and 3D printing is something which could be hugely disruptive. The global economy, like it or not, for better or for worse, is dependent (even addicted) to consumption. If 3D printing did, in fact, end 'throw away culture' and at the same time trade many manufacturing, logistics and even retail jobs for much, much fewer 'hi-tech jobs', even if it did result in cost savings, does anyone care to guess what that might do to the global economy? The calculus of that whole equation (social, environmental, economic, etc.) is way more complicated than most even appreciate, let alone could prepare for. But, on the other hand, it ain't going to happen overnight, and the majority survived the transition from horse & carriage to horse-less carriage, and mankind will adapt again. Keep your helmet on, and chinstrap secure. Life could be getting bumpy. As a future-looking muse, this article is interesting. The actual future will have a few more warts and zits than the projected future.

dkathrens77
dkathrens77

Think about what this could do to giant corporations' stranglehold on innovation and advancement, if it becomes advanced enough and available enough for "the common person" to own and utilize it. If you can't imagine it on your own, read Cory Doctorow's short story "PrintCrime", freely available on the internet.

rickscr
rickscr

of the possibilities around this. Sounds like it will be huge game changer. Thanks for the info Peter

s.winegar
s.winegar

You indicate the positive aspects of new high tech jobs created, but the virtualization of manufacturing opens up a huge opportunity to automate, and thus remove skilled jobs currently in manufacturing. There's a bigger social impact than we can forsee at this time if this really takes off. That said, I'm a big fan of this technology and there are breakthroughs and related R&D concepts that appear almost weekly now.

wcallahan
wcallahan

As much as I love the concept of 3D printing, and I would love to have one at home. I can't help but wonder what will happen to the makers of all those widgets that can now be printed at home? How many employees will be without a job because I don't have to buy that widget?

a.portman
a.portman

The technology would need to improve a great deal before it reaches a to the consumer point. The 3D printers I have seen "print" (build up would be a better description) plastic in layers until the shape it reached. A 6 inch toy car needs 10 hours to print. As for the end result being able to take heat, caustics, or pressure. Not so much. Now my dentist does fabricate crowns in house. My mouth was scanned. The scan went into a CAD program. The dentist shaped my new tooth. The program has templates and shows the thickness of the enamel and when it it too thin to work. They choose a porcelain blank in the right color and from a set of preset sizes. The blank and the file get fed into a 5 axis milling machine and it cuts a new tooth. Scanning, about 10 minutes. CAD, 20 to 30. Milling under an hour. For the patient it is one visit not two. It was an expensive set up and two days of training, but it beats the week lab time. Paid for itself in under two years.

cquirke
cquirke

What materials would you need to make anything? Could designs be structured around standard-defined materials, with materials research going into conforming to these? And what would the materials be - a matric with some gaps between properties like hardness, flexability, conductivity and insulation (heat, electricity) and transparency? Would you be able to recycle yourself, i.e. process unwanted goods made out of standard materials to return these to the supply, much as current "green power" home technologies seek to put back into the grid?

meski.oz
meski.oz

Where the machine is a throwaway price, and the ink costs a fortune? At the moment, no, the 'feedstock' is fairly primitive. No DMCA chipped ink cartridges, yet. @Palmetto: re throwaway, I'm hoping that 'don't like the way something turned out?' will feed back into 'turn it back into feedstock and reprint it'

vxquizit1
vxquizit1

The same material that was used in the first place, can, in most cases, just be recycled back through the printer.

HypnoToad72
HypnoToad72

piracy will be a concern, especially in countries whose piracy rates are only 3~5x higher than the US's, but the double standards in rewarding those pirates would make an article and conversation in of itself... If piracy is rampant, if IP theft is rampant (even on Android and iOS), then it will exist with 3D printing as well... and noting pundits saying "the rise of the creative capitalism age", to see creativity stolen - especially if the thieving comes from the little guys like me or others - it doesn't do us much good in the end either...

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

This technology is a singularity all of its own. It will affect everything. And still, we're already taking it for granted, we just call it 3D printing, and not nano-assembly, which it arguably could be described as, although not in the hi-sci-fi meaning. No grey goop problems.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

but I also work in a plant where we design and assemble PCBs, both through-hole and surface mount.

peter
peter

Without enough bandwidth and the right interfaces we have to fly - there is no other choice! The real damage is done by tourists...

ed
ed

No, this week, month, whatever, I don't expect the repair guy will have a part maker in the back of his truck. However, there might be a part maker at the shop or one for several shops. Having it locally might save some of the wait a week or two while your part gets shipped from Timbuktu and your dirty dishes pile up. The repair guy could contact his home base and they could have the part waiting for him when he got in.

peter
peter

....along with jaw bones, skin and soft tissue...but mostly at the early stages of development.

peter
peter

Spot on - it is as ever, all by degree. We have now created a world way beyond any full human understanding with thousands of feed forward and feedback loops, plus hundreds of parameter axes. Our mathematics max's out at 3 - 5 loops, whilst we max out from 3 to 7 axes. Without computer modeling we would understand nothing, but intelligent machines might just help us :-)

peter
peter

Correct - but mainly people rather than technological. And the end game has to be the benefit to the planet.

peter
peter

What about the new creativity jobs? This is what technology does - where would you have us stop? Yesterday, today? Pre robot, post robot? Or at the time of the blacksmith perhaps. Machine make more than man already!

peter
peter

You are looking at old or amateur technology And all technologies make a slow start - involve innovation and improvement - and then accelerate into use

peter
peter

Almost any material can be adapted to printing from plastic to metal, inorganic to organic. And recyling becomes the norm rather than the exception - the key is the non-destruction of materials and their properties.

cwarner7_11
cwarner7_11

This is already the business model for some of the high-end 3D printer manufacturers- locking you in to their "proprietary" materials...

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Wouldn't you need some sort of chipper / shredder / liquidifier to turn the finished product back into raw material? Maybe there would be some sort of franchise business where people sell back printed parts, the business turns them back into ink in bulk, and resells the raw material at a mark-up. All of this assumes the finished product is recyclable at an affordable cost.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

How will this aggravate IP theft? I'm missing your point.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

and it will probably run off 110 volts from an on-board generator. I've seen portable CNC systems for small shops advertised on the tube; there are several used on eBay for under $10K. I expect printers for small parts will hit that price and will easily meet a two- or three-year ROI. Most large appliance repair guys are trained in both the electrical and plumbing requirements. maszsam does repair techs an injustice by underestimating their skills and overestimating the number of people required to perform repairs.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Instead of just illegally copying and duplicating music, movies, and documents with inexpensive PC technology, it will now be possible to easily copy and duplicate patented parts as well.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Your 'home grown scanners' post above also sounded like an open source project.

JCitizen
JCitizen

Charge a nominal fee for buying the device to help make up for losses in copywrite(IP). Just like they did with TIVO.

cwarner7_11
cwarner7_11

One can, today, upload a series of photographs (for now, mostly limited to pictures of people) to a web site (unfortunately, I don't have the link), and have them converted into a 3D model that can be readily printed. Instructables includes a few projects on home-brew laser scanners (limited, of course, in capability, but how long before these "home brew" devices start generating reasonable results?). Trying to gauge where 3D printing is going by reading the popular press is going to leave one behind the times (and unlikely to make a killing in the stock market on this technology). Have a look at what's going on in the "early adopter" community (i.e., the hobbyist that isn't waiting for someone else to come up with things), the medical community (dental prostheses are quite readily printed much easier and faster than traditional methods)...

durocshark
durocshark

There's a company online where you can submit your drawings, choose your material, and get the item. All (relatively) inexpensively. Check out Shapeways. I've had some stuff from there. VERY interesting...

MyopicOne
MyopicOne

...it already is. Low end machines cost a few thousand dollars, it was stated in a Washington DC TV news segment about three months ago. Not sure I'd make a camshaft using one yet, but I have heard anecdotally that someone made a barrel for a weapon and fired it 200 times without a problem - have no idea if true and tend to doubt it myself.

bboyd
bboyd

Some very accurate and expensive, others less so. Some software that can do the drawings from scaled images also.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I doubt the printing or scanning will be affordable to the consumer in this decade.

SiO2
SiO2

Currently its not illegal to use the measurements of a part to duplicate it for your own use, say as a replacement - even if that part is patented. It is illegal to duplicate many parts and distribute them, if they are patented, also to duplicate one single patented part and give it to someone. The problem lies with the look of the part. If the duplicate is identical, its an illegal copy, if it doesnt look like the original, but does the same job then its simply third party. Manufacturers dont prohibit third party parts because they cant, but they can and do try to make it difficult by using aesthetics to influence the design - this they can then patent as a 'look' and stop copying, which is why our hardware is expensive and looks like it does instead of being cheap and really useful. 3D printers will probably do away with patents, or change them radically. Its more a matter of copyright when you're talking plans for things.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

There will be ways to scan existing parts, or anyone with minor drafting skills will be able to program them. (Early in my career, I was supporting machine shops who were early adopters of interfacing PCs to CNC machines) Once a drawing exists digitally, it's just a matter of time before it's disseminated on the web. And if this still seems far-fetched to anyone, just consider than half of what goes on over the web today was inconceivable to even "visionaries" a mere 20 years ago. Believe me, this will happen.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I don't see how it would be easy to copy. You'd have to have some way to 'scan' the part, including any internal structures. Then you'd need software to convert that scan into printer instructions. Maybe the software would be readily available, but I can't see the scanner being an affordable device. You'd basically need a desktop X-ray or MRI scanner.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

If existing law were to apply, you could do so if you independently programmed the printer to create the part for your own use. If you were to get the "drawings" for the part from a third party who was not authorized to sell the part, then probably not. If you were to sell the part you created, that would probably be against the law.

Slayer_
Slayer_

But if say, you needed a special part for your car, it would be ok to fabricate it.