By no means a new phenomenon, 3D printing has been utilised by a number of industries for around 30 years. However, in recent years the technology and the 3D printing industry itself have begun to develop to the point where they are now proliferating and spreading into other areas.

Modern 3D printers are capable of interpreting computer aided design files and are able to build items layer by layer in a variety of materials, including plastic, metal and others. This process of printing, or ‘additive manufacturing’, which eliminates the need for older and more costly manufacturing techniques, allows for the printing of a wide variety of items, from components for appliances and children’s toys to medical prosthetics, firearms and even human components such as internal organs. Continual refinements in the technology and the expiration of a number of printing patents have combined to drastically lower the cost of 3D printers in recent years. As a result, for the first time the technology is now becoming financially viable to consumers and businesses alike. Some commercial 3D printers are now available for as little as $1000. With the increasing ubiquity of 3D printers, some observers believe that it could herald the start of a new industrial revolution.

From a manufacturing perspective, the ascent of the 3D printing industry has the potential to have a positive impact. 3D printers allow for simpler and quicker production techniques. Furthermore, 3D printing is significantly greener than many other manufacturing methods. It enables firms to get their products to market quicker than conventional production techniques. Rapid prototyping and on-demand production are also huge benefits. Clearly, additive manufacturing may have the potential to be extremely disruptive in a number of areas. Some analysts have suggested that by 2025, the 3D printing industry will be worth approximately $8.4bn.

Oct-Dec 2014 issue

Richard Summerfield