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3D printing is more than just a gimmick

Column It could revolutionise manufacturing in developing countries
Fri Feb 01 2013, 15:14
Lee Bell

3D PRINTING is becoming a more widely recognised technology by the day and has gained a much more prominent position in industry, especially in recent years.

Although it's a popular belief that 3D printing is a new idea, its recent rise in popularity is due to advances in technology that have pushed down the production prices of 3D printers. What many people don't know is that the first 3D printer was assembled over two decades ago, and it's only recently that the machines have become affordable and thus more accessible to the masses.

You can't deny that 3D printing is a very exciting prospect, with its ability to print a solid three dimensional object by laying down successive layers of material, but what I find frustrating is the popular misconception of where the future of 3D printing is taking us.

I'm disappointed with the way 3D printing has been portrayed in the mainstream media. Touted in glossy magazines and featured in documentaries as the newest gadget to come out of the geek's bedroom, it's associated with the notion that any Tom, Dick or Harry could design their own custom furniture or home accessories using CAD tools and print them, eliminating the need to trudge to Ikea.

As a result, if you were to ask the average Joe what they know about 3D printing, more often than not, they would reel off a list of possibilities such as designing and printing a case for a smartphone, or a 3D model of their own heads. Though not completely purposeless, at the same time it's not exactly revolutionary.

People are certainly riding on the wave of hype associated with the technology as a novel thrill. But it's all too easy to get carried away with what cool possibilities this "trendy gadget" offers.

3D printing is capable of much more than resolving first-world problems, such as fancy made-to-measure kitchen utensils. The technology has a potential to revolutionise manufacturing by creating sophisticated products without the need for labour-intensive factories. An example of this is the idea of larger 3D printers, which can build complex parts for vehicles. Airbus recently integrated 3D printing technology to make titanium parts for planes and ultimately aims to produce full scale aeroplanes from the ground up.

But even those individuals who are able to see past 3D printing as a gimmick and realise its potential impact in design and manufacturing, industries have generally focused on the issues associated with the technology and how it could disrupt developed economies. For example, some industry watchers predict that wide-scale rollout of the technology could decimate the cargo industry, as the need for long distance transport would be greatly reduced.

3D printing could also cause concerns over copyright infringement, as it opens the ability for anyone to print a product by downloading the CAD design templates. This could give way to an underground network of CAD design distributors that upload designs over the internet to be downloaded across the world in the same way Bittorrent is affecting the movie and music industries.

However, there are always going to be both good and bad sides to any technological innovation that hits the mainstream, and I think those fears are completely the wrong way to look at 3D printing.

For instance, this week I spoke to William Hoyle, the CEO of Techfortrade, a charity that aims to promote innovative technology and improve manufacturing processes in developing countries. The firm's intention is to make 3D printing a sustainable technology by integrating it into poor rural communities to help regenerate local businesses. And because it's become very cheap to do so, he maintains that this is not only imaginable but becoming increasingly likely.

However, a potential problem for this is that, as with 2D printers, 3D printers' running costs could outweigh the costs of the printers and thus make them too expensive for businesses to use in developing countries.

This is something Techfortrade is looking to solve, and it has recently awarded the University of Washington in Seattle $100,000 to help fund a project that will make the materials used in 3D printing recyclable, where waste plastic is used as filament for 3D printing machines to create new products.

As Hoyle tells me, 3D printing can provide local communities with access to facilities they need to produce and market their own products, something 3D technology experts refer to as "the democratisation of manufacturing". This could in effect open up 3D printing to developing countries in the third world and put them at the forefront of a manufacturing revolution.

I'd like to believe that soon enough this is what 3D printing will become and be recognised for. Not its ability to print out a lampshade or custom-designed furniture, but its power to inspire people to revolutionise technology and enable the rapid development of manufacturing industries in countries that desperately need to catch up with the developed world. µ


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