Could 3D Printing Change the World?

The term 3D printing covers a host of processes and technologies that offer a full spectrum of possibilities for the production of parts and products in different materials. Essentially, what all of the processes and technologies have in common is the manner in which production is carried out - layer by layer - in an additive manufacturing (AM) process.

This is part one of a series of articles about 3D printing. In this article I explain the general technology behind this new production process, discuss its advantages, and give a brief sector perspective. In the second article, we will dive deeper into the value chain of the 3D printing sector. In the last article, several companies operating in this sector will be analyzed.

What is it?

3D printing is an enabling technology that encourages and drives innovation with unprecedented design freedom, while being a tool-less process that reduces prohibitive costs and lead times. Components can be designed specifically to avoid assembly requirements, with intricate geometry and complex features created at no extra cost.

How does it work?

Naturally, every object produced in a 3D printer will not be the result of the individual’s own creativity and ingenuity. Sometimes the object will be one downloaded and printed from another person’s original design. In most cases the object will simply be a copy of an existing commercial product.

The complexity of the part is limited only by the imagination of the designer and the computing power of the 3D modeling software.

This copy could come from at least two sources. The first source would be the Internet. CAD plans, as all files, are easily copied and distributed online. Once an individual creates the plan for an object and uploads that plan, it is essentially available to the world. The second source would be a 3D scanner. A 3D scanner has the capability to create a CAD file by scanning a 3D object. An individual with a 3D scanner would be able to scan a physical object, transfer the resulting file to a 3D printer, and reproduce it.

From a CAD file to the end product

Replacement?

While 3D printing could be used to create wholesale copies of manufactured goods, it could also be used to create replacement parts for worn or broken goods. Instead of scouring the Internet for that oddly shaped bracket or hinge, an individual could simply print out a perfect replacement part. In fact, the individual might decide to improve upon the original part to prevent it from breaking in the future.

Designer Daan van den Berg imagined what could happen if people adapted a more “personal” style to their standard designs.

Composed entirely through algorithms?

Hansmeyer and Dillenburger, both computational architects at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's architecture department in Zurich, wrote algorithms to completely design the complex geometry of a 16 square meter (170 sq ft) room.

Dubbed "Digital Grotesque" their modern take on a medieval grotto was made with a new type of 3D printed sandstone, infused with a hardening resin to increase its structural stability. 

To print out the sandstone parts that made the room, the duo used a massive Voxeljet 3D printer, about the size of a large room. "It can print a single piece that weighs 12 tons, yet at a layer resolution of 0.13 millimeters," says Hansmeyer. "This combination of scale and resolution seemed unreal to us at first."