3D printing: a transformative technology
I hear the word “transformative” a lot these days. Last week I had an opportunity to understand in a deeper way exactly what it means to talk about a “transformative technology”.
Jeremy was invited to represent e-NABLE at a public program on 3D printing sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago in partnership with U&I Labs. Jeremy asked if I would like to join him to get a close-up look at some things going on in the field.
David Mosena, President and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry, who introduced the keynote speaker, describes the mission of the Museum as “creating transformative experiences that get people excited about the world around them…”
There’s that word “transformative” again. And yes, a public program on 3D printing is a perfect expression of that mission. The common theme throughout the program was that 3D printing is entering every sector of our economy and lifestyle. It will transform not only the things that surround us and the way we produce them but our way of thinking about them and our world.
3D Printing: redesigning creativity?
After having a chance to meet and talk with people at the forefront of 3D printing projects in many fields of endeavor from e-NABLE’s prosthetics to medicine to robotics to sustainability and more, we enjoyed a presentation from Avi Reichental, President, CEO and Director of 3D Systems, Faculty Chair of Digital Fabrication at Singularity University and a Member of the XPRIZE Foundation innovation board.
Avi focused first on the democratization of manufacturing that 3D printing allows, pointing out the bi-directionality of that process: even as 3D printing creates a new future for us, it returns us to the roots and heritage from which we came.
Those roots ante-date the industrial revolution, going back to a time when everyone was a craftsman. What we lost in the mass production of the industrial revolution is craftsmanship and artisanship. 3D printing opens a door to a return to that as it decentralizes and democratizes industry. Our new craftsmen and artisans are the 3D makers and designers.
This vision is one that began with Chuck Hull of 3D Systems 33 years ago. His idea was to return Detroit to competitiveness as it lost market shares to the Japanese. Chuck had the idea he could work smaller and get to market faster.
This idea of Chuck’s has become a “disruptive exponential technology” that touches everything: shoes, cars, mobile devices, fashion, jet engines, medicine and food to name a few things. It is beginning to influence how we learn, how we teach, how we express ourselves and how we design.
And today we are only at the beginning of this journey! It is a journey that will change our ideas of what is possible as it transforms and disrupts the way we design and manufacture. As recently as 10 or 11 years ago, it wasn’t obvious this would all be possible. Now it is clear that it is. We have an opportunity to mainstream technology through passionate and realistic removal of friction points.
The journey will be shaped by a few trends and ideas. Within the field, the most important catalyst for progress is materials science. Today we have 120 materials from 3D Systems alone with which to print – plastics, nylon, rubber-like materials, ferrous and non-ferrous alloys.
At first we thought the “holy grail” of 3D printing would be mass customization. Now it’s clear the more important opportunity is that we can rethink designs with a complexity and functionality that weren’t possible before. Why? Because complexity and enhanced functionality is free. We no longer have to conform to the requirements of mass production.
Here are just a few benefits of the trends and new ideas emerging from the industry:
- There isn’t as much waste, and everything is faster and less expensive.
- Waste can be turned into beautiful objects.
- It is possible to “get it right” the first time on big projects that cost a lot of money by using 3D modeling.
- Manufacturing can supply a “need it now” and “fit for me” demand.
- In medicine, errors are reduced and outcomes improved because of models and reality simulators that allow rehearsals.
- Kids in classrooms can hold their ideas in their hands.
We are headed toward a ubiquitous 3D lifestyle that will permeate every aspect of our lives. The question isn’t should we get a 3D printer in our home but what room in our home will house the 3D printer!
Yes, there are unintended consequences. One that stands out is the possibility of printing 3D guns. With the democratization of digital craftsmanship, everyone can make things, not just designers and craftsmen. There are questions that must be answered along the way, and there will surely be regulations.
Currently technology and 3D printing are moving at exponential speeds. Regulatory and enforcement platforms are not moving at the same speed. And yet – should we restrict the flow because some misuse technology? We cannot regulate the human condition. We can just begin to educate people in charge of education and law enforcement.
And there are also unimagined consequences as we continue to transform and disrupt the way we think, design and make things. These are the things that are exciting.
Several organizations got a special mention for their work at this point, and e-NABLE was one!
3D Q&A: what are people asking?
Here are some of the questions asked by the audience, and answers from Avi Reichental:
Do you see 3D printing becoming ubiquitous? Yes, as much as the tablet or smart phones in a few years. The possibilities are unlimited as we get away from the need for a supply chain. For the first time in more than a century, we have tools that will allow anyone to start a business.
Will 3D printing replace traditional manufacturing and the jobs associated with it? No. Instead I expect a convergence of additive and subtractive technologies in the same box, a hybridization. I do think we will have to deal with issues of job learning in a massive way…with retraining and repositioning and learning new skills and developing new muscles.
What are some issues you see developing in the regulatory process? We can now do physical photography and 3D scanning for 100s of dollars, so there are questions about the value of an original design. Who owns it? What constitutes counterfeiting? Who can monetize a project? Who is entitled to royalties and revenue sharing arrangements? No one knows. What’s the value of a 20 year patent when technology doubles every year exponentially? These things will probably be tested quickly.
How does energy consumption for traditional manufacturing compare to 3D manufacturing? Studies show up to 40% net benefit in additive manufacturing vs. traditional manufacturing. More studies are needed.
Will one or two technologies begin to dominate? No. There are different machines for different purposes. We can’t look at it as a single crank engine but rather as a toolbox.
Where will the next generation of innovation come from? Each of us has access and tools so can develop digital literacy. 3D print the magic box that your own ideas jump out of: a collaborative device, a creative device, a chance to play and learn, to become an artist or a scientist or maker – create a sandbox of creativity and personalization, that’s the biggest opportunity!
The best question and response of the evening was from an 11 year old young man. He asked, ”What can 3D printing do for me that I can use?”
The answer? Effectively it was: “Ask not what 3D printing can do for you but what you can do to transform the world with 3D printing.”
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