The future is coming, and it’s going to be manufactured in a whole new way.
3D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing, so GE decided to give it its own holiday: 3D Printing Day. They’re celebrating by designing and 3D-printing holiday gifts for their fans all day on December 3. After all, even elves deserve a break for the holidays, right?
But what exactly are 3D-printed things made of, and how will the process influence the way manufacturers work? Take a look at seven things you probably didn’t know about 3D printing, and join the 3D Printing Day celebration with the hashtag #3DPrintMyGift.
1. 3D Printing Started With Lasers
The early days of 3D printing were the 1980s, when computers would trace a pattern that was submerged in a liquid polymer. The traced pattern hardened into a layer, thanks to the laser, and that was how you built an object out of plastic. The term “stereolithography” refers to creating 3D plastic objects through this layering, or “additive,” technique.
2. Modern 3D Printers Work Like Your Inkjet
There have been a number of incarnations between the days of stereolithography and now, but in 2013 a newer method of 3D printing is called material extrusion. By this method, a printer builds up an object out of matter that is pushed from a mechanical head, in some ways just like your inkjet produces text on a page by extruding ink onto paper.
3. You Can 3D Print Almost Anything (Even Chocolate!)
3D printing can now create things out of concrete, synthetic stone, ceramics, even chocolate and cheese. Some 3D printers are pushing the envelope with substances such as metal — laying down fine layers of stainless steel or aluminum, and then using a laser or an electron beam to “glue” them together. “We are already seeing custom body implants and ready-to-wearfashion and housewares,” Lewis says. “Add to that 3D-printed organs, bone scaffolding and the next generation of jet engines. We believe that the barrier to what 3D printing will do is generally imposed by the limits of our imaginations.”
4. 3D Printing Means Less Waste in Production
In the past, to make something, you drilled, cut, and filed away what you needed from a quantity of base material. That meant a heap of leftover scrap material. With 3D printing, it’s an additive process: You build up an object from the base material. Think about the implications. The factory buyer should see a difference in the amount of waste associated with each manufactured part.
5. Manufacturing Risks Less With 3D Printing
With 3D printing, the whole equation of scale changes. Instead of attaching a different mold to every machine for every object, the 3D printer switches what it makes, in most cases, by dint of what the computer is telling its extrusion head to do. And so, one no longer has to make thousands of a product to reap the benefits of setting up a facility to make the piece. Manufacturing becomes more nimble and less financially risky.
6. Everybody Gets What They Want
A car manufacturer could create even the most niche component for a dash or cabin without having to justify the part by the volume of orders. A home goods maker could craft offerings to particular regions, climates, and lifestyles without having to convince their board or partners that millions of buyers are ready to pay. “More and more we want to pick products that speak to us as individuals, and to stay relevant more and more companies are looking to break out with custom or personalized products that they create or can be co-created with the consumer,” Lewis says.
7. 3D Printing Could Mean Stronger Local Business Models
Manufacturing, says Lewis, could become a regionally focused idea because of 3D printing. “The next 10 years are going to be about localized actions, including manufacturing,” she says. “While this trend will not totally eliminate manufacturing as we know it, it will disrupt and transform the manufacturing paradigm and allow us to selectively re-localize and enable us to manufacture the future.”
All of this without a mention of what home 3D printing might do for individuals so inclined. One day, the discussion may not be about where our printed products were manufactured; the question will be, in which room of our house did we download and create the things we want?