Until recently, artisans carried out design and production through the painstaking process of handcrafting customized products one at a time. If you wanted to buy a pair of shoes, you’d visit a cobbler, who’d create a perfect pair just for you. Then, the Industrial Revolution happened, which sped up the process and made it highly scalable—but less flexible for customization and further removed from the consumer. This process hasn’t changed for the last 100 years.
Now, 3D printing is poised to unleash a new wave of transformative changes in manufacturing, returning the craft to designers and production to local centres, while taking advantage of radical improvements in efficiency and speed. It will even allow us to design and produce entirely new products that have never been conceived of before—yet alone brought to life.
The next wave of transformative change in manufacturing
In the next 10 to 15 years, 3D printing will converge with socioeconomic forces, advanced design, production innovation, and highly automated printed processes to spark incredible transformations in design and manufacturing that were previously unimaginable. In some ways, this sea of change will herald a return to the norms of old. Products will be manufactured at local 3D production centres, nearer to the customer, and customization will be far easier to achieve.
The new production process will also require minimal logistics management and stockpiling of inventory, permitting products to be designed and produced on demand once more—but at a far faster clip than in the age of our ancestors. 3D printing is also responsive to contemporary concerns about the climate, posing a far lighter carbon footprint than mass production did in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
A revolution in the design process
The most exciting changes 3D printing offers lie in the realm of design. Today, we can unleash our imagination and conceptualize new products to benefit the market by incorporating inspirations from the physical world, whether in 3D or 2D form, into the product design workflow—essentially blending the physical and virtual worlds with agility and ease. For instance, take Sprout—a fully integrated desktop 3D-scanning solution with 3D object capture. Now, anyone can grab something from the real world, manipulate it in the digital world, and bring it to life in physical space.
As greater potential is unlocked, it will be critical to ensure the printing process is capable of creating viable, durable versions of these innovative new products. Unlike the prior method of producing separate 2D parts that were then joined together, the new model of additive manufacturing makes it possible, for the first time, to produce a product completely from scratch, in a single printing run, entirely whole. 3D printers can now generate such products in incredibly fine detail, with robust end part strength, at quicker speed and lower cost.
A new frontier of limitless possibility
In the Industrial era, the processes of design and manufacturing were broken down into discrete parts as part of an assembly line process. Designers can now issue fine-point, detailed direction concerning the aesthetic attributes of a part (e.g., colour and texture) and its physical properties (e.g., strength, elasticity, etc.), clarifying the overall design intent for the product in a unified manner. For that to be possible, designers must have design tools that clearly communicate the printer’s capability needs. The design software and the printer must also perfectly align with common and enriched volumetric language that directly translates into volumetric pixels, or voxels, at the printer level.
Not only does 3D printing democratize and reintegrate the design process, but it also allows for continuous improvement to an original design. In the near future, embedded tracing marks and sensors will make it possible to analyze each stage of the product life cycle from initial design to real world use, providing a wealth of information that can dramatically improve the quality, relevance, and usefulness of each product. A product can be designed digitally, rendered into physical form through the 3D-printing process, and then continually enhanced using digital feedback.
Continuous improvement and product enhancement
This blended reality, blurring barriers between the physical and digital realms, opens the door to the creation of entirely new products that were just beyond our capability not long ago. Health care alone could benefit greatly through the introduction of better hearing aids and heart valve replacements designed and perfected this way. The aviation and automotive sectors, through the collection of data on how parts and products perform and are used in real-world conditions, are also ripe for innovation.
We truly are on the brink of a new Industrial Revolution—one in which design and production take place more quickly and much closer to home. Customization is responsive to local requirements; designers can imagine and print entirely new products never before seen; and the innovations themselves can be constantly improved through the intelligent use of tracking and sensor data. It’s an age of limitless potential and transformative change, and it’s already underway.