Inside 3D Printing

Posted by John Patrick on

3 D

I was one of the 4,000 people who attended the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo at the Javits Convention Center in New York on Thursday and Friday. Although 40% of the population sampled said they had never heard of 3D printing, it is clear from this conference that it is revolutionizing manufacturing, enabling new products, and impacting business processes. One speaker called it an industrial renaissance. Another said that the design-to-manufacturing value chain market opportunity is $35 billion.  I think of it as an industrial revolution that will be equal to the impact of the Internet.

The speakers and demonstrators at the conference made it clear that 3D printing is changing **everything**. In the early days, 3D printing  used bland-colored resin to print small objects one item at a time and one layer at a time. The printers cost many thousands of dollars and were not accessible to consumers. At the conference this week, a Chinese company, XYZprinting Inc., introduced a 3D printer for $499. It supports 12 different colors. What can you print? Just about anything. If you can imagine it, you can print it. Visit Shapeways to get an idea or buy 3D-printed objects.

The range and variety of things on display was nothing short of amazing. A ring with rotating gears — printed as one item. Custom eyeglasses that were based on the width of your nose bridge and distance between your temples. Dental and hearing implants. Jet engine parts. A ChefJet prints chocolate candies and offers personalized nutrition — print your food. Games. Dollhouse furniture. Fashion items including accessories, shoes, jewelry, belts, and even garments. One presenter showed off his colorful 3D-printed shoes as he walked on stage. The conference had a Ford Torino with a multi-surfaced 3D-printed car body. See some of the pics I took at iCloud.

3D printing is an exponential technology that can change everything, and the low-cost technology has now enabled democratization — anybody can print things. If you don’t want to own a 3D printer, you can design something or select from hundreds of thousands of designs online and send your 3D file to a service to print it for you. No expertise is required and the software tools make shape complexity a non-issue. Material science may be the most important aspects of 3D printing. Printing with metal is now possible but continued development is needed to get the strength, cost, and speed where it needs to be. 

The big picture is that manufacturing is becoming digital. 3D printing is just one part of it.  One speaker described four major parts of  where manufacturing is headed. Additive, subtractive, robotic assembly, and nanoscale/bio. Additive manufacturing is accomplished with 3D printing. Subtractive manufacturing is when an object is milled to remove certain parts of the material. Integration will enable an end-to-end process from design to robotic assembly of 3D-printed parts. 

As I listened to speakers and walked the expo floor and talked to demonstrators, I got excited about the many possibilities. I thought of one of my motorcycles — a 1977 Honda Trail Bike — for which it is hard to get parts. I thought of various gadgets, knobs, brackets, and things around the house that are not available. They are now. If you can take a picture or draw it, you can print it. Before this conference, I thought of 3D printing as being limited to a prototyping tool. Now I can see fabrication-grade direct metal printing, where thousands of parts can be printed per printer per day. The printed parts will be lighter and more effective than parts of the past. 

The area I most excited about is in medicine and the potential for patient-specific surgeries. In the afternoon I went to a healthcare conference and then returned to the 3D printing conference the next day to hear some medical speakers. More about the medical area in the next post.

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