The first documented experiment with 3D printing took place as far back as 1960 – over a decade before emailing burst onto the technology scene. Both creations have had a huge impact on the creative and scientific spheres across history, yet most of the world are only learning about 3D printing now, in 2013.
Why did we have to wait so long for 3D printing?
3D printing, also known as ‘Additive Manufacturing’ and ‘Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM),’ is the process of layers and layers of powder being ‘printed’ on top of each other, and then compressed into a single, solid item.
The materials used vary both in terms of what they begin as, and what they ultimately become. Plastics, metals and ceramics can be manipulated and created using 3D printing, however the biggest problem – and ultimately the reason why Additive Manufacturing is yet to become commonplace in every factory in the world – is that the materials used are generally more expensive than the printing machines themselves.
The first real invention to come from a 3D printing machine, in the form of a working part, occurred in 1981, and just six years later, ‘3D Systems,’ the world leaders in 3D printing technology, was founded. 1990 was the year that BMW, the German automotive giant, ordered its first two 3D printing machines for testing and use on their production lines.
A huge leap towards the sustainable future of 3D printing took place in 2007, when the first colour printers available for less than $40,000 entered the market. In 2013, a lower end professional closed FDM machine costs between just £5,000 and £20,000.
These machines can ultimately revolutionise the manufacturing process of important instruments across all sectors of business. Whilst most companies use 3D printing methods to produce moulds and prototypes of future products that will be manufactured through more traditional processes; dental crowns, in-ear hearing aids and tools can be created using FDM machines. Even jewels can be ‘printed,’ transforming the jewellery industries of the future.
However, as 3D printing machines are used, advanced and developed, weaknesses are highlighted and can severely affect the performance of printed items. Speed is a key issue that affects this technique, as printing a single, completed product can take up to 30 hours. The resolution and finish of these items is also affected, with the final product looking cheap, with just 250-150 microns resolution. Adverse temperatures can also hamper the performance and look of 3D printed items, as those made with plastic will bend under heat.
So will 3D printing become to go-to manufacturing process during the next decade? 3D Systems, Stratasys and EOS are on board, whereas Xerox, Konica and Epson are rumoured to need more convincing. Sony and Meiko explored the possibility of large-scale 3D printing, but each lasted less than 20 years in the race to make it a reality. HP lasted just two years, between 2010 and 2012.
A personal open FDM printer will set you back £1,000 – £3,000, but this cost, over time, will pay for itself. For example: buying an iPhone case from a highstreet retailer will cost you between £15 – £25. Having a personalised case designed and printed by an online manufacturer will set you back close to £30, yet printing one yourself, using an FDM machine will cost less than 50p. Getting your hands dirty early will pay off later.
Is there a limit to what can be produced by a 3D printer? Given current advancement rates of Additive Manufacturing processes, will every household appliance, furnishing and accessory be printed by the end of our generation? Only time – and lots of experimentation – will tell.