How is 3D printing disrupting traditional industries?
We explore how 3D printing is disrupting traditional industries
News broke on May 8 of Yoshitomo Imura, a 27-year-old man from Japan, who got arrested for illegally printing and possessing guns. Back in April, police had found five plastic guns and a 3D printer at the suspect’s home, along with blueprints for manufacturing guns stored on his personal computer. Two of these guns were able to pierce over ten pieces of plywood, which deems them capable of killing or wounding people. The suspect, a college employee, was quoted as saying, “but, I didn’t know they were illegal.”
Imura’s claim that he was unaware of a law against printing guns is very likely to be genuine. It is not common for new consumer technologies to come into conflict with the law or even require new legislation altogether. But for those that do, it is a definite sign of the magnitude of their disruptive potential. Beyond security and legal issues, what are some of the implications of 3D printing on traditional industries? Before we get into that, let’s take a quick look at some of the dazzling recent applications of 3D printing.
EDIBLE MATERIALS At South by Southwest Interactive, global snacks company Mondelez International partnered with Twitter for the Oreo Trending Vending Machine. Event attendees were able to savor the beloved cookie in a variety of flavors styled using 3D printing machines. The flavors are based on trending topics that followed the hashtag #eatthetweet.
A number of companies are already busy testing out how this technology could change the way we prepare food. Already available are food printers for chocolate, pizza, ravioli, chickpea nuggets, corn chips, and sugar candies. One of the most famous machines, the Foodini, lets users print anything they want provided it can be pureed first.
SOFT MATERIALS Carnegie Mellon University and Disney Research Pittsburgh have invented a 3D printing technique for creating soft interactive objects, like plush animals. The printer uses a needle to turn layers of wool yarn into loose felt objects. The device looks like a cross between a 3D printer and a sewing machine. It is capable of producing apparel and accessories such as scarves, hats, and even teddy bears. But more importantly, it might also be used in the near future to produce parts of so-called “soft robots”–robots designed to touch or be near people.
In ‘traditional’ 3D printing, melted plastic is extruded in a thin line and laid out in a layer; subsequent layers are added to achieve the object’s desired shape, with the layers adhering to each other as the plastic cools. In this example, however, the printer’s head feeds out yarn instead of lines of melted plastic. Then, a barbed felting needle attached to the printer’s head repeatedly pierces the yarn, entangling the fibers and bonding the layers together. The printer doesn’t achieve the same dimensional accuracy as conventional 3D printers because the yarn is much thicker than the layers of plastic. However, like other 3D printers, this machine uses computerized designs to make 3D objects. Thus, it can be used for rapid prototyping and customizing of objects.
FULL-SIZED HOUSES Chinese company Win Sun claimed that it was able to print 10 bungalows in 24 hours using giant 3D printers and a quick drying concrete mixture composed of waste materials. Each bungalow cost less than five thousand dollars. The task required four huge printers measuring 32 meters in length, 10 meters in width, and 6.6 meters in height.
The company hopes that one day it will be able to use the same technique to construct skyscrapers and villas.
ELECTRONICS Project Ara, the modular smartphone conceived by Dave Hakkens and later picked up by Motorola and Google, is said to rely on 3D printing. 3D Systems, the company tasked with producing Ara’s tiles, recently announced that it is “creating a continuous, high-speed 3D printing production platform and fulfillment system to accommodate production-level speeds and volume.”
PEOPLE MINIATURES imakr.com is an online store that sells a wide range of 3D printers and materials, 3D art, and 3D scanners. imakr also operates one of the world’s largest 3D printing stores, located in Central London. Among the popular creations of imakr are 3D miniatures of people. The process involves having a person’s portrait digitally scanned in their 360 degree
scanning booth to capture the person’s likeness with amazing accuracy and detail. The printed 3D object comes in full color.
MAKEUP Mink is a new 3D printer for makeup that was introduced at the Techcrunch Disrupt NY 2014. Fashionistas can choose any color they like on the web or in the real world and, using simple already-existing software, the little printer can print that color into a blush, and later into eye shadow, lip gloss, and any other type of makeup. Priced at less than $200 with plans to launch in 2014, Mink will allow customers to prepare their own makeup from the comfort of their home.
LIVING ORGANISMS A San Diego-based bio printing company called Organovo expects to unveil the world’s first printed organ next year. Similar to other types of 3D printing, bio printing layers material to form an object. In this case the layers are made up of live cells, and the object is an organ. However, the problem has been manufacturing the vascular system needed to keep the organ alive. Cells would die as soon as they leave the printing table. Organovo is said to have figured out a way to overcome the issue and was able to maintain liver tissue in a fully functional state for at least 40 days. It is important to note that the produced organs will serve for drug testing and laboratory studies. The company is yet to release any info on implantable organs.
WHAT DOES THIS ENTAIL FOR TRADITIONAL INDUSTRIES? 3D printing democratizes the creation of physicals goods. Making products won’t be restricted to large manufacturers anymore. Anyone with a machine at home will be able to produce products. This is made possible with the release of more affordable 3D printers in the market. Just recently, The Micro, a $299 3D printer passed $3.5M on Kickstarter. Its goal was 50K. The Peachy Printer, another Kickstarter project, goes for as low as $100. And there are plenty more, as listed in the side feature. This will mean that the purchasing dynamic will drastically change. In some instances, buyers will pay for raw materials and design files or software for the object they are looking to purchase. Imagine what downloading a recipe could mean then.
This won’t mean that manufacturers will lose their jobs. For the foreseeable future, manufacturing will become more flexible as manufacturers will be able to establish factories much closer to points of sales. This might occur even if the cost per unit should increase for objects that traditionally benefited from scale efficiencies of large, centralized plants. The offset from reduced shipping costs and maintaining large inventories could tip the scales favorable for certain industries.
This also means that goods can be more easily customized to individual buyers’ whims. Changing the design of a chair would simply entail a minor adjustment in the design file. The options are unlimited, and we only have to sit and observe how 3D technology changes our lives. Just like the Internet did, and the computer before it.