October 06, 2014
How 3D Printing Will Change the Future of the Manufacturing Industry
Maybe you have heard the phrase "3-D printing" in the past and let it quickly slip from your mind. After all, it is hard enough just to understand regular two-dimensional printers: Who needs to add a whole other level of complexity, right? All kidding aside, a new breed of printers is set to change the way the entire world functions. Everything from medicine to weapons and even aerospace technologies will be forever altered for the better, thanks to this evolving and miraculous technology. But what is 3-D printing, and how exactly will it change the world of manufacturing?
In laymen"s terms, 3-D printing is a process in which a specialized printer takes a model of a three-dimensional object and prints it out, making a real-world object that transcends the normal two-dimensional, flat world of traditional printers. It's almost like those food replicators on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Crew members told the computer to make them lunch, and the next thing you know, a delicious cheeseburger appeared out of thin air. Magic!
While that form of 3-D printer is probably far away, real-world 3-D printers do exist, and the technology has been around, in bits and pieces, since the 1980s, though it did not earn this moniker until 1995 when Z Corporation trademarked the phrase "3-D printing."
However, as miraculous as this technology sounds, it has taken a while to enter the corporate environment and is still probably a decade away from serving any real consumer application. Part of the challenge of 3-D printing is the complexity of the system since 3-D printers require more than just a sheet of paper and the press of a button.
By their very nature, 3-D printers must perform at a higher level than a normal printer because they are creating real structures that must stand up to the rigors of everyday life. Imagine setting a printer to create a machine part and then just walking away and trusting that it created a part you could slap into your equipment and not have to worry about it breaking down.
Three-D printers require an array of sensors and analyzing equipment to ensure that they are functioning properly. They also have to be able to handle massive amounts of data, as true 3-D models, which the machines use as blueprints to print from, contain a lot of information. Add in the cost of materials, which vary depending upon what is being printed, and the cost of 3-D printers quickly begins to become burdensome. This is another reason the technology has only recently begun to make its way into commercial businesses.
Early cost and complexity challenges aside, there are some recent innovations that have made the process cheaper, and as such, new players have found it easier to utilize the technology. In particular, the aerospace sector has begun to incorporate 3-D printers into their manufacturing processes to create lightweight airplane parts. Other companies and early adopters will likely use the technology to help generate low-cost models and cheap mockups, helping to fuel the future of manufacturing innovation in the years to come.
While we aren't able to print out a pizza from the comfort of our futon just yet, 3-D printers are here, and they are set to make a big impact on the world of tomorrow. Now, if only someone could figure out how to prevent paper jams...