Is 3D Printing the Next Industrial Revolution?

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What I learned this week … came from a Crowdsourced Manufacturing? blog entry by Wayne Hodgkins. I haven’t read his Off Course-On Target blog before, but I liked what he had to say.  He made me really start to look at 3D Printing as a viable manufacturing option as opposed to a prototyping / design validation tool. This post is interesting, but I also took a quick look at his posts on printing in stainless steel and a very cool contraption that includes an onion, a laser scanner, and a 3D printer. Click through his site to David Bowen’s and see a video of that machine in action, it is a piece of art.

My Preconceptions about 3D Printing

OK, here is where I open myself up to criticism. I have always considered 3D Printing a tremendously valuable tool for developing rapid, inexpensive prototypes. To me, a digital 3D model is a great way to visualize a design, but it is (in the end) still presented on a 2D screen. As much work has been done in adding life-like reality to digital models, there is still something very significant about holding something in your hands. My impression of the 3D printing technologies was a way to quickly make a model of a part to help validate the design of the real part.

What I Have Learned

3D printing is not an area I have spent much time researching, so I may just be behind the curve. But what I am starting to get a glimpse into is the world where 3D printing means serious manufacturing. The post about printing with stainless steel, for example, talks about printing molds for real parts. But then goes further to explain how stainless parts can be printed by a company called Shapeways. I love the term used in one of the blogs, DIY Manufacturing (DIY for “do it yourself”). Clearly this is not going to replace manufacturing as we know it any time soon, but these technologies will certainly have a place and will make an impact.

Implications for Manufacturers

I want to revise something I said above. I now see 3D Printing as a viable manufacturing options in addition to being a prototyping / design validation tool. Both are very valuable and can change the interaction between design and manufacturing. By lowering the barriers between the digital model and the physical part (whether prototype or real) the potential for rapid innovation and design iteration explodes. It also opens up great possibilities to allow parts to be designed in one location and “printed” in another. We have gone from drawings and physical prototypes to digital prototypes. Now, I am starting to imagine a collaboration where one engineer effectively “e-mails” a part to a supplier, or “faxes” a part to another engineer by laser scanning a physical part or prototype and sending the model to be printed. One step further, why can’t I order a 3D model from anywhere in the world and just go to my local printer (unless I have one in my garage) to pick up the part? Who knows, maybe this is already happening somewhere.

So this is clearly an area I need to learn more about, I hope you found it interesting. Who knew? I didn’t, if you did let me know about it.