The 3D Manufacturing Revolution

Posted by Flux on 

18 November 2013


What’s trending now?

3D manufacturing technology is about to disrupt our post-industrial skills-based economy the same way desk-top printers revolutionised the publishing industry.

Why it’s important?

We’ve heard of 3D printers.

Cubify and Makerbot have been selling home-3D plastic printers for years now – and you can now get your very own small, portable 3D desk-top printer right here in South Africa from CAD House for less than R10,000 – making them as accessible as the first desk-top printers were in the 1980’s.

The machines come with software that can be used with simple cloud-hosted open-source designs so you can design and make pretty much any small object you want or need.

This means you and your kids could soon be designing and printing your own toy furniture, scale architectural models or lighting design prototypes.

And the printers don’t just print in basic plastic anymore either.  You can now get working 3D printers that manufacture objects in various more durable, useful materials; such as Vader Systems’  aluminium printer which prints models in molten metal.

What’s the butterfly effect?

Just ten years ago, if you had wanted to design and manufacture an object, such as a vase or a shoe, it would have been a complicated, expensive process.

First, you would have had to employ the services of a skilled CAD or computer design operator to translate your paper sketch into a 3D, technically correct computer model using their expensive, difficult to operate computer software.

Next, you would have to commission an artist to make a scale sample of the object – a costly exercise.
Then, once you were happy with the model (which may take several tries), you would have to find a factory to produce your item. Most factories insist on large/minimum order quantities – meaning you would have to commit considerable resources to ship your first consignment of your creation home – usually from a far distance.

Not only was the design and manufacture process hugely expensive; it was also a very long process. The lead time from design concept to finished item could take the better part of a year.

3D printing technology changes all that.

To start with, you can design your object yourself, for free, online using open source software, such as Google Sketch-Up. Then, you can import your DIY design direct into your own personal 3d printer and have your first prototype ready to amend – or even sell – within hours and for just a few hundred rand.

And if you do not have design ideas of your own, you can simply get a free design from one of the thousands of free 3D design templates available online… Or model one from a real life photography or movie using software such as 3-Sweep.

This is a huge shift.

Just like Photoshop and desk top printers made you and I publishers, designers and printers; 3D technology makes us all manufacturers.

And just like self-publishing on and offline has pushed the print-publishing and media industry to the brink of extinction, self-manufacturing threatens to do the same for the traditional industrial machine.

Factories with their massive lead times and huge production lines are about to face competition from millions of micro-manufacturers, all making completely custom, customisable products quickly, flexibly and cheaply.

And aesthetic design prototyping is just the start.

The pioneers and the global hot spots

Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired Magazine, started manufacturing robots using open-source software and his small home 3D printer in his garage as a project with his primary-school aged children. Today that little experimental business has grown to an international operation known as 3DRobotics, a drone manufacturing company that competes with top engineering firms and that does business with the US government.

Then there is Fripp Design, the UK based company that is now using 3D scanning and printing technology to print human prosthetics, faster, cheaper and more accurately than the traditional cast-moulding process. Watch the video of Fripp Design is using technology to make peoples live better here.

And that’s still just the start – the next wave of 3D printing is going even further – into bio-printing or printing of living tissue. In fact, it is predicted that within the next decade replacement human organs may be bio printed to patient specification using technology derived from today’s inkjet printers. Organovo has already printed functioning blood vessels and cardiac tissue. Whole #D printed transplantable organs are the next logical step.

And this jump from easy 3D printing of design to easy 3D printing of living tissue with revolutionise the medical world – and the role doctors play it in – the same way its already disrupted the publishing and manufacturing playing field.

By: Bronwyn Herold

About Bronwyn

Bronwyn-Feb2011-001 b&w square

Bronwyn is an insatiably curious avid reader and an amateur physiologist who takes a keen and amused interest in observing the human condition.

She is constantly astounded at how predictable the world is once one is aware of the underling historical cycles shaping the trends driving our society forward.

Image credit: Timur Emek/Getty Images/Gallo Images

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