As potentially game-changing as the steam engine or telegraph were in their day, 3D printing could herald a new industrial revolution, experts say.
For the uninitiated, the prospect of printers turning out any object you want at the click of a button may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but 3D printing is developing fast and looks set to leap from the labs and niche industries onto the wider market.
“There are still limits imposed by the technology available today, but I’m certain that within 10 or 20 years, we’ll have a kind of revolution in terms of the technology being available to everyone,” said Olivier Olmo, operational director of Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federal de Lausanne.
To print an object, a 3D digital design is first made from scratch on a computer, or by scanning an object that is then cut into two-dimensional “slices,” which are computer-fed into a printer. The printer then slowly deposits fine layers of material such as plastic or metal to build the object.
In addition to the potential ecological impact of producing products where they are needed, 3D printing could make the small-scale production cheaper by avoiding turning out huge numbers of products which may go to waste, said Simon Jones, a technology expert at law firm DLA Piper.
“The technology offers possibilities that available manufacturing does not,” said Carla van Steenbergen of i.materialise, a Belgium-based service that prints designs for users.
Van Steenbergen cited as an example customized screws for broken bones which match specific anatomical characteristics and thereby cause less deterioration than the traditional variety.
For those tempted by home-output, a handful of 3D printers have hit the consumer market, retailing for about US$2,000.
Van Steenbergen said that at the industrial level, 3D printing is not set to replace traditional methods, but complement them.
“I think it will affect the manufacturing of some products, but it’s never going to replace it,” she said.