I lived in Montreal Canada some 6 years ago and I think on my 2nd or 3rd day a friend introduced me to a PHD student who had a small 3D printer setup in his place. He explained how it worked and even guided me through the CAD program he used to design an object and finally I printed a small square. While the printer rapidly moved back and forth laying down strips of hot liquid plastic, we talked about the technology, its future improvements and potential implications. What really got me interested in 3D printing were the possible impacts it would have on a number of different parts of the world, which I’ll get into later in this episode.
What is it?
Rather than a subtractive process, 3D printing makes three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. An object is created by laying down successive layers of material. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. 3D printing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing which is cutting out / hollowing out a piece of metal or plastic. It enables you to produce complex shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods, like injection moulding — where a liquidized material is forced into a mould — if any changes to the product need to be made, a new mold needs to be made first, so 3D printing also offers more flexibility.
Types of 3D printing
The Most common form of 3d printing is a technique that extrudes material from a specialised head that adds layer upon layer. Typically this is done with plastics and is the common way that hobbyists use 3d printers. However, today industrial grade 3d printers offer much more refined and precise methods, which are also much more expensive, and are typically referred to as additive manufacturing. Some of these processes even include laser melting. With these new techniques 3d printing has evolved beyond the basic plastic base materials too allowing glass, other plastics, and even metals to be used.
3D printing was used predominantly for rapid prototyping at its early start. Think about having a product idea and instead of just having a paper or digital image, you can print it overnight assess it the next day, and make revisions and changes immediately. Repeating the cycle you can arrive to a final product much more rapidly than traditional methods. However, As of 2019 the precision, repeatability and material range have increased to the point that some 3D-printing processes are considered viable as an industrial-production technology, whereby the term additive manufacturing can be used synonymously with “3D printing”.
Some say that 3D printing has already reached critical mass in industry, where the global 3D printing industry is expected to exceed 15 billion USD by 2020.
Applications (Many can be found here)
Some perhaps more obvious applications that you may have come into contact with, even if you weren’t aware, are dental products, eye glasses, lamps, furniture, even shoes. Back in 2017 Adidas unveiled plans to have the midsole (a layer in shoes that absorbs a lot of the shock) of their the Futurecraft 4D shoe 3D printed. But these aren’t the applications that got me interested in the technology.
What I think is really interesting is the application of 3d printing in places that might not seem so evident right away.
The first is in healthcare
- Back in 2011 I watched a ted talk where Dr Anthony Atala explained the research of regenerative medicine. In the talk there was a 3D printer in the background putting down layers of material onto a weird looking ball that looked as if it had the consistency of jelly. In his talk, he would go on to explain that the 3D printer was actually printing a kidney that could one day be implanted into someone. Although this was just a demonstration and has not been implanted yet, over the last 8 years more simple organs such as skin,and even bladders have been successfully implanted, and other parts such as bone, cartilage, and muscle tissue have been shown to be feasible in lab conditions. In fact during the ted talk a patient explained the success of an implanted bladder that had already taken place 10 years earlier. Though the more complex organs like kidneys, livers, and hearts are still years away from being fully developed for printing and transplanting, I’m sure just like you, I was pretty shocked upon hearing this. It became immediately obvious to me that a massive impact with this would be on a specific industry, if I can even call it that. The Illegal trading of human organs is estimated to generate around 1–2 billion USD per year, and deals with roughly 10% of all transplanted organs. Kidneys are the most frequently sold organs and can go for a up to 200,000 USD. There is a chart that I will link to in the shownotes with the cost breakdown of black market body parts. It’s quite a dark thing to think about but is nevertheless a reality, and if the technology improves over the coming decades, it is foreseeable that the black market organ trading, ‘job’ is something that we will only come across in history books
- On a more positive note though still within the same domain, 3D printed prosthetics have become the go to prosthetic of choice. 3D printed prosthetics are both much more affordable and can be highly customised to each person’s needs and wants. They are especially useful for kids as re-sized models can be printed as the child grows and thus outgrows his/her prosthetic. Due to the customisable nature of 3D printing, there is even the possibility of making the prosthetic highly customised and even artistic for each individual. Some examples are of having a red iron man looking hand for kids, or even a chrome coloured leg for those who ride motorbikes. I even once saw an example of a 3d printed foot for a duck. I checked and Buttercup the duck was born with a backwards foot making it impossible to walk around, but this was solved by having a customized 3d printed foot.
- You may also have been hearing about the use of 3D printing within food. There is of course an entire movement for speciality chocolates, and cakes using 3D printing, but there was a recent story of astronauts printing a steak in space. Just last month on the International Space Station, meat cells were fed into a special 3D printer that then printed a ‘steak.’ Though the finished product apparently had ‘much to be desired’ it nevertheless worked. Normally just a 1 KG slab of beef takes around 20,000 litres of water to produce, but growing and printing the cultured meat takes up to 10x less water and land, is much quicker to produce, and of course doesn’t require an animal to be killed… though it still requires a biopsy to get the initial cells.
- The last application of 3D printing that excited me about this technology is related to larger scale products. Contour crafting, though not exactly 3D printing, uses the same principles but at the size of buildings. Instead of using small specialised extrusion heads with materials like plastics and metals, contour crafting uses large concrete nozzles to add layers of a house or building. In much the same way that a plastic Eiffel tower model is printed by a 3D printer that can fit on your desk, contour crafting builds the shell of a building in an automated process. Back in 2014, a Chinese company was able to print 10 small one story houses in 24 hours using four contour crafting 3D printers. Due to lack of manual labour and cheap materials, each cost only 5000$ to make. The hope of the company is that the technology advances to such an extent in the future that even skyscrapers would be able to be printed. Recent Construction workers statistics were hard to come by, but there are well over 100 million across the world, 10 million in the US alone. As the work is incredibly varied, many have speculated that it is incredibly challenging to have robots replace humans in this work. Also, an estimated 30% of all building materials are wasted on a typical construction site, and just in the US there are 150,000 injuries on the job every year with an average of 1000 deaths, making it one of the most dangerous jobs to be had. For these reasons, many claim that contour crafting is in a perfect situation to disrupt the modern construction industry by both drastically reducing material waste, injuries, but at the expense of potentially millions of jobs.
As I mentioned before, these were some of the first applications that got me interested in 3D printing early on. However, many 3D printing advocates have a more ambitious vision, namely the ability to manufacture most complex household objects from the comfort of our own homes. Most cities across the world today have a Fab Lab, or a small scale workshop that offers people the opportunity to create objects and devices for themselves. But as we are seeing the trend towards personalised products continue to increase, having your own personal 3D printer would enable the production of everyday products we use to move into individual homes. Through this we could see a massive reduction of goods transportation, and overseas manufacturing demand. Rather than going to a store to buy a new cell phone protector, kitchenware, or even many christmas presents, just print them from your home after downloading an image you like, or even designing it yourself. The impact on jobs would be quite dramatic. Think of all the amazon products that could just be printed instead of sorted, collected, and delivered. However, even though 3D printers are dropping in price, some even go for less than 100e, the trend seems to be that organisations are offering their customers more customised options as 3D printers become faster, more efficient, and a feasible solution to traditional large batch size manufacturing methods. But what do you think? Would you prefer to have the convenience of a printer in your own house that you could print a number of products?
There are of course a few problems with this vision. One being that the user friendliness isn’t quite there yet for the general public, and some sort of digital design skills or CAD knowledge is still required to properly use most 3D printers today.
The second and more challenging issue is that of the Liberator. In the US in 2013 Cody Wilson successfully test fired a handgun made almost exclusively from a 3D printer. And the designs of the weapon were immediately released online for others to see and use. Since then dozens of designs for guns, parts and even ammunition have been made available, making the legal and regulatory framework for home 3D printers quite a bit more complicated.
But either way, whether 3D printers become a staple of every household, or whether corporations and hospitals and construction companies use 3D printers more, I think it will be a technology that will have a large impact on individuals, society as well as the tasks and jobs many people are in right now.
Thanks for listening, to the podcast as always, leave a review and if you have any questions or comments reach out to me via the website automatedpodcast.org or social media.