3D printing: Unleashing its real potential
How one amazing technology can both be hyped and understated as the same time is baffling. Clearly, 3D printing offers more than how it is being promoted.
Every time I see yet another pastel-coloured mug advertising the wonders of 3D printing, I cringe. The whole idea of advertising such a high-potential technology with a decades-old gee-whiz approach galls me. 3D printing is a powerful tool in the hands of professionals. It can do jobs that no other manufacturing technology can touch, and it allows economic production of small runs.
The choice of that mug design highlights a problem with printing. The output-side technology (the printer) is well evolved, but the input side has languished. The printing technology has failed to take off and isn't yet fully adequate to the job. That doesn't make the printers unusable, of course, but they don't exploit the full potential of 3D.
The issue starts with CAD software tools. These are designed for the traditional processes of stamping, bending, grinding and moulding, and need to add a set of printing-oriented options to the front-end design creation suite. Concepts such as constrained colour control, shrinkage in fine-blanking processes, surface finish specification and such need to be added to the design palette.
In some other areas, the tools available are unique to the 3D-printing space, though they are expanding out to other uses. Possibly driven by visions of a transporter beam or replicator from Star Trek, 3D scanning is a great complement to the printing capability. It is the solid version of a Xerox machine.
Not only can parts be copied, they can be copied from a wax, clay, wood, ceramic or metal template and converted to new materials. That's a powerful tool, since it allows new ways to create parts cheaply. This approach is spawning a new business model for replicas of art objects where realistic, accurate copies can be generated automatically. The museum replica business just found a new way of doing things, for instance.
Being able to scan shapes is a new tool in the jewellery trade. Free form, flowing designs are notoriously difficult to do with CAD tools. The ideal vehicle is to make a prototype part by hand in wax and then 3D-scan it into a computer.
The most innovative use of 3D scanning to date is a Christmas offer by a major department store to scan objects and create replicas. Using this approach it is possible to create figures or busts of loved ones. It is pricy, but it beats the heck out of green pastel mugs!
Some specialty businesses have created their own solutions to the input problem. One very impressive use is the building up of dental crowns and bridges. Here, the impression the dentist creates is converted by software to a model for a crown or even a full dental plate. My dentist has the printer running in a glass case in his lobby, and clearly stands by the results.
There's a considerable hobbyist market for 3D printing. Jewellery makers can get designs printed, and even moulded in metal, by service bureaus. A variety of PC tools is available to create the design. We are just tapping in to the innovation this is unleashing, and again, more sophisticated software tools are part of the answer, while 3D scanning also has a place. We can expect 3D art to take off. Sculpture is likely to engender a sub-specialty of 3D-printed work, and this will extend to many other forms of art.
Medical sciences also have their own tools. Being able to create replacement body parts is a new and exciting area. We've seen the focus on just a few ideas, such as growing ears on substrates, but this area will expand to create replacement bones, and even major organs. This is all in its infancy, but it's a good bet that tools to ease the design task will become a sizable revenue stream.
3D printing is developing a set of task-specific infrastructures. The potential for the whole technology ecosystem is very large. Look for a rapidly evolving story.
- Jim O'Reilly
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