3D Manufacturing or Additive Manufacturing has for many years lived a quiet existence in labs and University departments, where it was mainly used in prototyping to significantly speed up R&D and product development processes. However over the last 2 years, as the technology has been honed and the costs have been reduced, businesses of all sizes are discovering its potential. We’re now on the cusp of the next industrial revolution, where 3D printing could transform manufacturing, business strategies and deliver us into a world of increasing instancy.
3D printing is used and experimented with across the broadest span of industries. It has been trialled on the International Space Station to produce maintenance tools and equipment, so they don’t have to wait months for these parts to be delivered. It is also transforming the world of medicine, perhaps most recognisably in prosthesis and reconstructive surgery, where it is helping medical teams to rehearse complex surgeries and produce detailed custom-made prosthetics. There is even promise in the use of Additive Manufacturing technology to harness the ‘bio-printing’ of cells. Although still in its early stages, this method could mean significant advancement in tissue and organ engineering.
Earlier this year, a Chinese company called WinSun printed 10 houses using a mix of cement and recycled construction waste. The whole process (including assembly time) took a mere 24 hours and reportedly only cost $5,000 USD per house. To add to its sustainability, WinSun also plan to build 100 new factories for recycling construction waste, thereby gaining a reliable source of re-usable material. Another company, WASP (World’s Advanced Saving Project), have recently launched a record-breaking 12m tall printer, which can produce whole houses out of local, eco-friendly materials, such as clay and mud. The aim of the WASP technology is to provide a quick, energy efficient and cost-effective method for producing disaster relief housing, as well as a potential building solution that could tackle our rapidly expanding population.
Additive Manufacturing is also offering ground-breaking changes in the world of pharmaceuticals, with the FDA recently approving the world’s first 3D printed drug. This new prescription pill treats the seizures associated with epilepsy. The severity of seizures between individuals with epilepsy varies greatly and consequently it can take some time before the correct drug dosage is found to manage the condition. However, the pioneering 3D printing technology allows the dosage to be tailored to suit different individuals, ushering a shift away from standardised, off-the-shelf and mass-produced medication to highly bespoke, personalised prescriptions that can be generated on demand.
In fact, the phenomena of ‘next day delivery’ could soon be outshone by 3D printing technology. It is already possible to purchase 3D printed items such as jewellery, fashion and furniture, but in the not too distant future we could be printing purchased products ourselves at a local 3D printer shop, or even on our own home device. 3D scanning technology is also becoming increasingly accessible to the everyday consumer, enabling those of us who aren’t competent CAD designers to harness the power of 3D.
3D printing offers the ability to manufacture to order, which not only reduces cost and waste but also offers greater potential for personalisation, which is becoming increasingly important, both to end users and as a marketing tool. The initial adopters of this technology are already finding ways to capitalise early by offering bespoke services at premium prices, before 3D printing becomes an everyday commodity.
The leading construction company, Laing O’Rourke, have established themselves at the forefront of Additive Manufacturing Innovation by patenting a technique which uses wax to produce precast and reinforced concrete moulds. The customised wax is itself reusable as a formwork material and so as a strategic method, this has proved both cost-effective (4% of the cost of traditional methods) and efficient in time (as little as 1 minute). This method also allows greater flexibility in form, which means the company can offer a wider, more bespoke service and at a competitive price.
For manufacturers who are adaptive and forward thinking, only opportunities stand before them. Whether they’re investing in advanced manufacturing machinery now so they’re ahead of the pack, revising business models to appeal to the ‘must have now and must be bespoke’ generation, finding ways to capitalise on the promised reduction in materials and reduced carbon footprint or collaborating with others in the supply chain to offer something more valuable than their competitors. The key will be in proactivity, as opposed to reactivity; embracing the exciting potential offered by 3D printing and therefore reaping the rewards.