Tag Archives: 3D printing

Is new printer technology friend or foe to global trade?

Unless you live under a rock, you’re probably aware of Donald Trump’s views concerning the perceived unfairness to the United States’ existing global trade policies. After all, his pronouncements are constantly divulged and dissected by everyone—from financial gurus to armchair analysts. However, with Canadian exports and imports now representing about 65 percent of national output—one of the highest ratios among G7 countries—the topic of global trade is hotter than ever here in Canada, with or without the “Trump effect.”

Another major influencer on global trade is the “technology effect.” New printer technology, the threat automation poses to low-skilled jobs, and even the latest wearable trends have far-reaching ramifications on people, processes, and trade. 3D printing is a prime example of a hot—and admittedly nascent—new printer technology that has both day-to-day and big-picture implications for industry leaders and office IT pros alike.

Take cover from a global trade wipeout

According to Wohlers Associates, which publishes annual reports about the 3D-printing industry, 3D printing is expected to generate over $21 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020. The disruptive impact of 3D printing will be felt across industries—including medicine, military, construction, and food. Imagine 3D printing complex biomimetic hands for amputees—sounds incredible, right?

The emergence of new printer technology is something to be celebrated, but those innovations can also lead to unexpected, ancillary consequences. In September 2017, global financial institution ING published a report stating the anticipated growth in 3D printing could wipe out almost one-quarter of cross-border trade by 2060. “3D printing is still in its infancy. For now, it has very little effect on cross-border trade,” wrote Raoul Leering, ING’s Head of International Trade Analysis. “This will change once high-speed 3D printing makes mass production with 3D printers economically viable. The first technical steps have already been taken.”

3D printers require far less labour to manufacture products and will ultimately reduce the need for developed countries to import goods from low-wage countries. If, as some experts predict, 3D printing assumes a 50 percent share of manufacturing over the next 20 years, a tremendous portion of world trade could be eliminated, starting with the automotive industry, industrial machinery, and consumer products.

Let it sink in: Nothing is simple

It’s these types of overarching, long-term ramifications that can get lost in the shuffle of early excitement about new technologies. It’s the responsibility of industry leaders to push their business forward and embrace opportunities for efficiency, but it’s also their responsibility to consider the ripple effects of those choices. These decisions aren’t made in a vacuum.

That said, no one can predict the future, and not all experts agree that new printer technology will kill global trade. In a recent article published by the World Economic Forum, authors Wolfgang Lehmacher and Martin Schwemmer wrote about how sports brand Adidas’s use of 3D printing shortened the traditional one-year production cycle, reducing lead times by 66 percent on average. This reduces inventory waste by enabling retailers to place orders based on sales and suppliers to deliver exactly what’s needed. Accelerated manufacturing helps compensate for potential declines in trade.

But a short and fast supply chain isn’t the only consideration to keep in mind. There are many other factors at play, including geopolitical risks, the availability of skilled workers, the quality of infrastructure, tax considerations, the costs of land and energy, and the time and effort to obtain licenses.

“The capacity to manage change and complexity is limited,” say Lehmacher and Schwemmer. “Changes can have huge implications—the workforce needs to be taken into account, and assets might not have been written off or amortized yet. Management needs time and energy to keep its focus on customers and markets and ensure the stability and smooth continuation of the business. Fragmentation has its limits.”

Please enter, the chatbot is ready to see you

It’s not just industry leaders who’re facing these questions—it’s also IT pros making decisions about office innovations. How will new technologies that reduce the need for human labour impact people and processes in the workplace?

For example, “chatbots” are now sophisticated enough that they can fulfill the needs of customer service departments, and phone centres could soon become a thing of the past. While bots won’t replace humans entirely, they will greatly reduce the number of customer service employees a company needs on its team. Technology could also replace recruiters by using machine learning and AI to analyze job applicants and match the right candidates to the right roles.

These types of IT pro-driven buying decisions have real-world impact, but of course, nothing is ever quite that simple. While innovations have the potential to eliminate human jobs, replace manual processes, and decrease trade, they may also compensate for those reductions by creating opportunities in other ways. Innovation can create new products, thus expanding their demand, which leads less to an elimination of labour and more to a reallocation.

Take the customer service industry. Bots will never be able to provide the same emotional connection and empathy a human can, but in taking on a greater share of “high-urgency” situations during support interactions, they free up humans to handle the “high-emotion” situations. You can also think back to the example of 3D printing: Could it make trade more regional and less global? Yes, but markets will eventually adapt.

“We shouldn’t see this as a negative for the world economy,” Leering writes. “It’s a shift, it’s a change, and it will, in the end, make products cheaper and boost purchasing power, which will be a positive for economic growth.”

New healthcare printer technology could print your medicine

You’ve probably never thought of your local pharmacy as a place deploying cutting-edge technologies, right? Well, that may change soon. Thanks to new healthcare printer technology and futuristic printers with the ability to print medicine, you’ll be able to watch in the not-too-distant future as your pharmacist 3D prints your prescription right on the spot. Now, that sounds cool.

The first approval for the 3D printing of a specific drug was granted in 2015—a dissolvable tablet for treating seizures in children and adults. Researchers at the University of Michigan in the United States have taken this approval one step further by developing 3D-printing techniques for issuing pure, custom-dose medications at pharmacies, hospitals, and physicians’ offices—i.e., anywhere you would normally pick up your meds. This could cut down on wait time for getting prescriptions and make it much easier to access them, too.

This reality may happen even sooner than you think: Experts have predicted it will be possible to 3D print a fully functioning heart within the next 20 years, so if science is that close to such a feat, the ability to 3D print medicine is definitely within a few years’ reach. There’s a whole new world of healthcare printer technology waiting to take the industry by storm—so let’s dive in and learn all about what’s coming around the bend.

Print medicine on demand

On-demand medicine printing could revolutionize how medicine is manufactured and delivered today. Pharmacists could customize the dosage of a prescription as needed, even based on individual biology. That’s right—healthcare is potentially stepping into the brave new world of personalized drugs. This technology could even theoretically combine multiple medications into a single dose—a major win for people with several different prescriptions. It would also decentralize the medicine production process, empowering pharmacies and doctor’s offices in remote places to deliver rapid, effective, and affordable care.

How does it actually work, though? Having adapted a technology from electronics manufacturing called organic vapour-jet printing, this new healthcare printer technology vapourizes medicines and combines them with an inert gas like nitrogen, then prints them onto a dissolvable strip, microneedle patch, or other dosing device. This technique helps medications dissolve easily, which could allow pharmaceutical companies to release drugs that have been shelved due to incompatibility with pills and capsules. It’s already been successfully tested for cancer medications, but it should work with a wide variety of other compounds, as well. In other words, 3D-printed medicine may even make it possible to introduce new types of drugs that couldn’t be created until now.

At the rate this technology is already progressing, it won’t be long before your friendly local pharmacist is whipping up a batch of custom meds for you on demand. While you’re waiting for that day, let’s give some thought to the potential risks involved with this bold new form of 3D printing.

Anticipate the risks of 3D printing

The idea of 3D-printed medicine is exciting, without a doubt, but let’s not gloss over the fact that it’s a technology that could be vulnerable to major risks. If these new printer types were hacked, the results could prove completely devastating, leading to gruesome—or even fatal—results for patients. This time, rather than pilfering data, a malicious hacker could stealthily change the dose of a medication to trigger a cardiac arrest or a similarly violent reaction—and no one would be the wiser.

Other innovations, like 3D-printed organs, 3D-printed prosthetics, and 3D-printed implants, are at similar risk of nefarious attacks. Restaurants serving up 3D-printed food could face the same vulnerabilities as 3D-printed medicine—a diner tucks into a meal, unaware a hacker has altered it behind the scenes, and chaos ensues. At the risk of freaking you out even further, now that 3D-printed cars are a thing, it’s not hard to imagine a bad actor slipping a design flaw into a file that ultimately compromises the car driven home by that diner after his meal.

This type of 3D-printing innovation certainly comes with pros, cons, and implications spanning far beyond the healthcare sector. While this technology presents tremendous opportunities to better lives and boost business outcomes, it also comes with some scary downsides that could outweigh the amazing benefits if they’re not properly addressed in advance.

Advance toward a 3D-printed future

How can today’s IT professionals best prepare for this future of 3D-printed everything? It all starts with more secure printing. Hackers know many folks tend to think of printers as not essential to cybersecurity, so they can take advantage of lax printer security when staging exploits and executing breaches.

This threat calls for a new breed of printers with capabilities such as continuous security monitoring, threat detection and response, and even self-healing features that can stop an attack before it starts. Armed with smarter, more security-aware printing technology, businesses can have a far better chance of keeping malicious hackers from hijacking a positive technology for more sinister purposes.

These are thrilling times, in which a lot of incredible examples of printing innovation are emerging at an impressive rate. Any nerd worth their salt can tell that advancements, like 3D-printed medicine, have the potential to deliver far more efficient, effective, and convenient care. To take full advantage of the opportunities these breakthroughs offer, though, technology pros must take prudent steps to secure their printing environments. This way, you can stride confidently into the 3D-printed future and make the most of all it offers.

3D printing tech in retail is changing the game

When it comes to smart tech in retail, few advancements will likely be as revolutionary as 3D printing. While this innovation is poised to shake up the entire supply chain, it can also offer much-needed sustainability to struggling retailers and provide consumers unprecedented flexibility.

In theory, 3D printing sounds like the perfect solution. Is there anything more exciting in this instant gratification-loving society than having exactly what you want, exactly when and where you want it? No boxes of inventory, no pesky shipping wait times—just near-immediate access to products entirely customized to a shopper’s expectations. But what’s the reality of 3D printing in the retail space, and what will the future bring?

Is retail in peril?

Online shopping has wreaked havoc on brick-and-mortar retailers’ bottom lines. With roughly 76 percent of Canadians shopping online, e-commerce innovators aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. To stay afloat, many retail giants are pivoting to embrace digital trends. In June, for instance, Sears Canada announced it would be closing 59 stores and cutting 2,900 jobs due to pressure from e-commerce.

But 3D printing—along with other rapidly advancing tech, like the Internet of Things and beacon technology—can save storefronts by enhancing and personalizing the consumer experience.

3D printing in retail today

When 3D printing emerged in the tech scene a few years ago, it was astonishingly futuristic, expensive, and seemingly impractical for any industry outside aerospace engineering. In 2014, Gartner predicted consumer 3D printing was more than five years away—and even that seemed far-fetched. Now, organizations are already leveraging this smart tech in retail.

One of the most successful pioneers in retail 3D printing is Staples. In addition to offering 3D printing services in a select number of stores, the office supplies corporation offers an online service in which users can upload a design and ship 3D prints directly to their home or office.

The future of smart tech in retail

While there’s only a handful of retail use cases in 3D printing today, increased demand is driving organizations to invest and begin rolling out new programs. Here are a few benefits of 3D printing we expect will rock retail over the coming decades:

  • A decrease in production costs will increase profit margins. Right now, the supply chain consists of suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. With 3D printing, retailers can eliminate suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors by investing in raw material and creating products right inside their store or warehouse.

  • Small batch production will reduce inventory waste. Today, retailers are tasked with predicting consumer trends and purchasing products accordingly. One poor prediction can result in a surplus of inventory and—you guessed it—waste.

  • The opportunity for user-designed products will boost consumer demand for 3D printing. Certain companies, like Shapeways, offer consumers the opportunity to easily build their own products or shop for items created by other users. This type of business model may disrupt the entire fashion and design industry.

  • Spare parts printing will become a norm. Whether it’s a broken vacuum hose or a missing gas cap, hunting down and ordering proprietary parts for household items is rarely convenient. 3D printing can make sure consumers can quickly access the exact part or piece they need, even if the brand has long since stopped manufacturing the product.

While 3D printing is still years from being common in the retail space, early adopters of smart tech in retail are already enjoying tons of benefits. By reshaping the supply chain, increasing convenience for consumers, and unlocking practically unlimited potential for modern product designers, it’s likely 3D printing will transform the retail industry forever.

Getting high tech with microfluidics

Society often takes huge leaps forward when different research areas combine. In the future, we’ll likely see big benefits from the marriage of two technologies: microfluidics and 3D printing. The results can change the way we analyze and treat disease.

Fluids flow differently through tiny channels than large ones, because their behaviour changes. Microfluidics capitalizes on this by pushing them through channels less than the width of a human hair. Scientists can squeeze many such channels into a tiny area, along with pumps and valves to control the flow of bodily fluids, such as blood, at this scale. The result? A microscopic circuit filled with tiny fluids, which you can manipulate with unprecedented precision.

Big steps in small things

Microfluidics has been evolving since the height of the Cold War, when defence researchers tried to create fluidic circuits to withstand the electromagnetic radiation from nuclear blasts. Since then, we’ve seen them extensively used in microelectromechanical systems (MEMs), such as tiny accelerometers and gyroscopes. The air bag sensor in your car probably contains this type of circuit.

In the late ’90s, researchers began exploring the technology’s benefits for health care and biotechnology, where they’ve long relied on manipulating fluids at the macro level. When a patient goes for a blood panel, for example, physicians take a sample and send it to the lab, where technicians manually transfer the blood into different equipment that creates a variety of tests. This means three things—expense, a productivity bottleneck, and lots of waiting—which is why the doctor calls the patient with the results weeks later.

Revolutionizing health care

A microfluidic circuit can take a tiny biological sample and test it quickly and simply in a microscopic version of such a test. The results can prove highly accurate and often instantaneous. Moreover, because the circuits are so small, you can conduct many experiments in different parts of the circuit at once. This has led to an evolving concept known as the “lab on a chip.”

The benefits for health care are huge. As the technology evolves, health workers can test for all kinds of conditions quickly and cheaply, using one-time disposable devices operated by unskilled workers. A worker in a developing country with a poorly resourced health system can test the entire population of a town using nothing more than a set of low-cost tabs and a smartphone. You can even put a blood droplet into a tab containing a microfluidic circuit, which would then communicate its results to a device plugged into the smartphone, instantly showing results on its screen.

One of the big promises for this evolving technology is biomarker analysis. Biomarkers are characteristics in the human body, typically at the cellular or molecular level, that tell us something about the patient’s health. Examples are proteins, carbohydrates, DNA, and RNA (used to express genes). Researchers are exploring the potential to analyze biomarkers for tumorous cells using microfluidic circuits in a bid to detect cancers more quickly and save lives.

3D printing—the next leap forward

Why aren’t these labs on a chip used everywhere? One big constraint is the huge cost involved in pioneering the technology. The cost of entry for microfluidics is high, because creating tiny circuits proves expensive and difficult. Typically, researchers use lithography, a process similar to fabricating microchips, but this makes innovation in new circuitry difficult. 3D printing is set to change that.

3D printers can potentially print a vast array of microfluidic layouts on demand, creating the possibility of custom-designed circuits. Imagine a library of microfluidic circuits designed for different types of tests that you can produce quickly, in the field, to suit different patient needs. Physicians won’t always want the same lab on a chip, but rather a toxicology, drug screening, cancer detection, or gene-profiling lab printed to order while they wait.

The hope is that scientists will develop microfluidic chips that test for a huge range of biomarkers, delivering a precise diagnostic profile for patients. But 3D-printed microfluidics may take us even further. These tiny circuits also carry the potential for drug synthesis, where different components are mixed together to create varying compounds for medical use. They’re also a potential solution for more precise drug delivery, where implanted circuits can deliver varying levels and mixtures of drugs based on their monitoring of local cell activity.

This is one step toward a future where medicine is highly personalized and vastly more effective, and with an aging population about to put more pressure on our health care system, it’s a future we must get to sooner rather than later. In modern medicine, the number needed to treat (NNT) ratio is an epidemiological measure of the number of patients that need to receive a particular treatment before one patient benefits. In an ideal world, the ratio is one—every patient benefits from every treatment. In practice, the ratio is still unacceptably high, because we’re still taking a sledgehammer approach to medicine.

Microfluidics can change that, which confirms something its inventors always knew: The best things really do come in small packages.

Tech in art is shaping the next generation of creators

In the mid-1830s, French artist Louis Daguerre captured images on iodine-sensitized silver-plated copper sheets, producing history’s first photographs and forever altering the course of art. As the next several decades passed, artists used similar processes to capture portraits of world leaders, space, and historical events. The end of the nineteenth century brought the first consumer camera—and today, thousands of people Instagram high-resolution images of their brunch. What a time to be alive.

The importance of tech in art is nothing new. From something as significant as photography to something as simple as portable paints, emerging technology has long been the art world’s greatest enabler. While more classical and traditional styles of art-making are still alive and going strong, many of today’s artists are testing the limits of today’s most innovative mediums.

Lasers, light snakes, and robots—oh my!

Love the idea of adopting a pet, but feel less than psyched about the responsibility of caring for a living, breathing animal? Petting Zoo, a project by experimental design firm Minimaforms, might give you hope. This art installation—made up of several snakelike tubes that bend and change colour depending on your sounds, movements, and touch—provides attendees a peek into a future, when artificial pets will learn and adapt to human moods.

If you just want to check out a good ol’ painting, you might prefer Rising Colorspace, an abstract work of brightly coloured lines covering the wall of a gallery in Berlin. While you might expect that the work was painted by a Jackson Pollock-inspired, neon-obsessed art student, the creator actually resembles a paint-pen-toting Roomba. The small robot, called a Vertwalker, was designed by two inventive German artists to constantly overwrite its work. So long as there’s someone around to change the batteries, the machine could theoretically paint forever.

But art doesn’t need to be tangible to appreciate it, as evidenced by Assemblance, an exhibit created by London art collective Umbrellium. Here, visitors move through lasers and smoke to create temporary, interactive light structures across the floor. While the artists created the concept, everyone participates in the act of creation.

Is everyone an artist?

Of all the technology innovations in the digital age benefiting artists, few offer as much opportunity as 3D printing. Today, you can quite literally print anything your mind dreams up—assuming you can make the blueprint. Artists have used 3D printing to create everything from jewelry and comic book figurines to life-size car sculptures, household products, and a replica of King Tut’s tomb.

Don’t have access to 3D printer? No problem. Even public libraries in bigger Canadian cities have access.

The possibilities for 3D printing are already endless. This technology is poised to continue its rapid evolution well into the next decade—and will likely become less expensive. But the answer to the question of whether tech in art makes us all artists depends on what you consider art. While recent tech advancements have unlocked more media than ever, not everyone possesses the aptitude, skill, creative energy, or desire to make art. It’s highly doubtful the ability to build light structures through laser beams or access to a 3D printer will make everyone a Da Vinci, anymore than a smartphone and a YouTube account makes someone the next Spielberg. Or does it?

How urbanization and the drive toward megacities will impact IT

Close you eyes and picture a major city in your mind—dealer’s choice. You can probably imagine the stark contrast between “city” and “suburb” as it stands today, but rapid urbanization is set up to change the way we work, live, and experience the world from sunup to sundown. By 2030, 41 new megacities with populations of more than 10 million each are expected to come online.

Just 20 years later, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities. The total area of urbanized land stands to triple globally from 2000 to 2030—the equivalent of adding an area larger than Manhattan every single day. How will rapid urbanization affect IT service delivery at the office? Here’s a look at how the accelerated development of megacities will impact IT in the near future and how day-to-day support of the business will evolve.

Hold onto your wallets, we’re going mobile

As residents of large cities are happy to tell you, space is already sky-high in concentrated urban environments. Expect this trend to accelerate as millions of people migrate from rural and suburban areas to emerging and established megacities. Increased population density will mean that space will be both expensive and hard to come by, forcing companies to rethink how they design products to fit in smaller, shared work and living spaces—or outright remote work.

IT pros will need to tap their ingenuity to support advanced technology in compact office environments. It’s going to mean purchasing computers and printers with small footprints that can fit in cramped spaces—not to mention maximizing available square footage by using vertical shelving and decluttering work spaces.

But mobility is a really promising solutions to this rapid urbanization hurdle. Telecommuting and flexible work arrangements will be even more central to business operations than they are now. More companies will leverage flexible coworking spaces for the workforce of the future. 3D printers will be a boon in the approaching era of limited space, allowing users to print products and even everyday objects on-demand in factories, local printing bureaus, and offices without the need for maintaining an inventory.

Supercharge work with hyper mobility and ambient computing

Mobile technology’s already changed the way we work, and the phenomenon shows no sign of slowing down. IT will support smaller, lighter devices for the denser environments where we’ll work and live. Wearable technology will become more commonplace, as will IoT devices that proactively order supplies before they run out, enhancing office productivity. It’ll be imperative to ensure the security of mobile technology and connected devices we use, including printer security, with a combination of security policy and administration tools that properly manage risk while facilitating business goals.

Office tech will even transcend the realm of physical gadgets. Virtual assistants will reschedule meetings or send clients inventory updates on our behalf, saving us time and eliminating tedious tasks from our daily to-do list as we turn our attention to more complex endeavours. Powered by insights generated from IoT data collection, ambient computing will be a persistent, intelligent digital presence that eases our path and reduces friction in the workplace.

This will benefit us most in megacity environments, appearing light as air yet making our lives demonstrably more efficient. Such AI-powered ingenuity will likely help IT teams dig even deeper into the analytics of their own performance, as well, providing proactive insight on how to deliver service at a continuously higher level.

IT managers will need to begin preparing soon to support a technologically enhanced workplace. Not only will they have to ensure their infrastructure is resilient and scalable, but it will be essential to aggressively defend the business against potential attacks that could cause even more damage as the workplace becomes more reliant on sophisticated tools and data insights.

Prioritize environmental sustainability

If current rapid urbanization trends go unchecked, humanity will require the resources of two planets to sustain its current lifestyle by the year 2030. IT will play an important role in ensuring the business is as environmentally sustainable as possible, optimizing office sustainability by curtailing energy consumption, investing in eco-friendly lighting and office equipment, and, of course, choosing sustainable printing solutions. 3D printing will also be an asset in this regard, as it will reduce the need for shipping and minimize consumption of resources by enabling users to print only what’s needed.

The inexorable trend of rapid urbanization, paired with exciting innovations that enhance our working lives, will turn megacities into incredible powerhouses of productivity and economic growth. It’s also going to put pressure on IT teams to provide robust tech services using limited resources. As this development continues, IT managers should begin laying a foundation now for the workplace of the future.

Next-gen tech steps up to the plate

Some next-gen technology has been on the verge of going mainstream for years but never quite seemed to make it—until now. 3D printing, virtual reality (VR), and artificial intelligence (AI) have finally arrived.

The Spiceworks 2017 State of IT report, which surveyed almost 900 IT decision-makers, lists these technologies at the bottom in terms of technology trends adoption. That’s unsurprising, given their nascent status and the fact that companies struggle to understand their commercial potential. But the market is starting to show enough interest to make them significant, and the level of tech development in each of these fields is stunning.

According to the report, 7 percent of respondents currently use 3D printing, with another 5 percent plan on using it. Four percent already use VR, with another 3 percent coming on board soon. Just 2 percent of respondents use AI, with another 3 percent planning to use it—although this may be a special case. AI is increasingly embedded behind the scenes as an enabling technology in applications and services that don’t necessarily foreground it as a feature.

How have these technologies developed in the last few years, and which companies lead the pack?

3D printing

3D printing’s been around since the invention of stereolithography in the early ’80s, but it was traditionally restricted to large firms that could afford the expensive industrial equipment. Then, the first open-source, self-replicating printer, the RepRap, was designed. In 2010, MakerBot debuted its 3D printer, followed in 2013 by Formlabs with its Form 1.

As desktop 3D printing evolved, so did the techniques. MakerBot uses deposition printing, which involves layers of material printed atop each other. Conversely, Formlabs brought stereolithography to the lower end of the enterprise market. In 2016, the industry moved on. MakerBot was acquired by high-end material jetting firm Stratasys in 2013, leaving XYZprinting, Ultimaker, and M3D leading the market for personal 3D printers, as noted by CONTEXT.

Several companies are now focusing on innovation in 3D printing. HP, for instance, is hitting the enterprise market with its 3D-printing technology and operates a marketplace in which third parties can innovate with their own printing materials. Imagine printing parts with embedded components, such as layers with different colours, LED indicators, and even circuitry. Executives envisage a future where 3D-printed parts can report their own stress and thermal conditions by directly connecting to the Internet of Things.

Virtual reality

Modern computerized virtual reality experienced a series of false starts. In 1991, arcade-game firm Virtuality launched its rudimentary VR-based arcade system, and four years later, Nintendo tried its hand in 1994 with the Virtual Boy, but the computing wasn’t fast enough, and the displays weren’t good enough. The next-gen technology lay largely dormant until 2012, when Oculus VR launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding program for its Rift head-mounted display.

The Oculus demos suggested the technology had finally evolved to support virtual reality, and while commercial delivery was delayed, Facebook acquired Oculus for $2 billion two years later, demonstrating its own faith in the concept. Since then, things have exploded on the VR scene. Powerful smartphones with high-resolution displays create impressive VR experiences at the low end of the market, thanks to a partnership between Oculus and Samsung, while HTC provides a similar offering with its Vive headset. Google also jumped aboard in late 2016 with its Daydream VR software platform, followed shortly after by Microsoft, which also unveiled a VR device.

VR is complemented by its cousin, augmented reality, in which computer imagery enhances rather than replaces images of the real world. Microsoft’s Hololens captured the public’s imagination in this space and is now on sale to developers. While Google’s Glass AR system was discontinued, it led a $542 million investment in secretive AR firm Magic Leap, which since expanded its total funding to $1.4 billion—not bad for a company that hasn’t even shipped a product yet. There’s a lot of money floating around the VR and AR market, and the next five years promise unprecedented growth for AR and VR as hyper-scale companies integrate them with a plethora of back-end services.

Artificial intelligence

Toward the start of this decade, the three biggest stories in AI hinted at where we’d end up five years later. IBM’s Watson defeated human contestants in the game show Jeopardy; Google revealed its driverless car technology was already on the road for months; and Apple launched Siri, its digital assistant. Since then, these technologies have all evolved.

Companies constantly push the boundaries in their AI research. Last year, Google’s DeepMind AI division won a game of Go against the world champion in a coup that wasn’t expected to happen for years. Self-driving cars are well on their way to commercial reality, with Elon Musk’s Tesla halfway there already—although ironically, Musk has voiced his concerns about AI’s potential to run away with itself and threaten human existence.

Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all jumped on the AI-assistant bandwagon, integrating them into equipment that listens to you as you roam around your home. The idea is to make AI so easy to access that it becomes part of your everyday life, accessible wherever you are. That’s part of AI’s biggest promise and, potentially, its biggest danger: As it becomes increasingly sophisticated, it promises to permeate our lives without us even aware of what’s happening.

It’s been a wild five years for these three technologies, but now that they’ve arrived, the most important part of their journey is only just beginning. What they’ll deliver in 2021 will likely be more amazing still.

3D printing is fuelling a digital revolution

The next digital revolution in Canada is an industrial one: The country is poised for a renaissance in manufacturing as 3D printing disrupts traditional economies of scale.

But this “fourth industrial revolution,” as outlined by Stephen Nigro, HP Inc.’s president of 3D printing, has many moving parts to form a “blended reality.” A number of different entrepreneurial players will participate in this digital revolution, as well—it’s not just 3D-printing players, be it large or small, who will play a role in this reality. Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, connected factories, and robotics will be interwoven into the fabric spurred by the commercial and industrial 3D-printing boom, combining the physical and digital worlds.

HP expects the 3D-printing industry will disrupt and reinvent the CAD$16 trillion manufacturing sector and predicts 3D printing to grow at a 30 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR). By 2021, it will be a CAD$24 billion industry, with plastics expected to be the largest portion of the market, accounting for an estimated CAD$13 trillion in five years.

Increased investment

As the 3D-printing market evolves, it may be better to look as it as additive manufacturing, which combines new and old techniques to rapidly create products. As a larger firm, HP has heavily invested in 3D printing for additive manufacturing, unlike smaller niche players who’ve focused on 3D printing for consumers.

It also forecasts 3D printing to broadly impact work and daily life, as it will shorten and localize the supply chain. This digital revolution will see the shipping of digital designs and raw materials, rather than tangible goods. HP also expects this fourth industrial revolution to impact education, as the classroom must prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, while the on-demand printing of goods will also affect trade and taxation.

Previously, HP tried to avoid the moniker of “printing company,” but when it comes to 3D printing, it embraces the name by leveraging technology the company’s developed over decades as the leader in conventional paper printing. HP has developed massive ink jet printheads configured to handle finely powdered versions of the nylon plastics frequently used for 3D projects. For Canada, it’s an opportunity to reverse its fortunes in the slumping manufacturing sector, as commercial 3D printing technology has the potential to help manufacturers meet demand in real time.

This digital revolution will also enable manufacturing companies to be more nimble, as they maintain virtual inventories—you only need to print parts to support a just-in-time delivery model. This agility will improve customer satisfaction and reduce production costs. Manufacturers could move production to local printing centres to meet customer requests for customization that would not be easily or quickly done in a traditional manufacturing model.

Anticipating adoption

To date, 3D printing has been primarily used for producing detailed prototypes, and although it’s not yet ready for producing items en masse, advances in technology mean that final, usable products can be made cost effectively. There’s also room for large players and smaller startups, as well as public-private collaborations.

In fact, large companies may need smaller businesses if they want to capitalize on the rapidly innovating 3D-printing boom. For example, Walmart Canada turned to a small think tank to test the feasibility of customers designing and printing their own, unique holiday mementos at its new Ancaster, Ontario store in December. Additionally, HP Canada president Mary Ann Yule recently noted that we’ll first witness 3D printing adoption in consumer packaged goods, as well as in the aerospace, automotive, telecommunications, and health care industries.

Efforts are underway to help 3D printing in manufacturing meet its potential in Canada, including collaborative efforts between industry and government. The Society of Manufacturing Engineers promotes 3D printing as a way to help companies return home, as well as encourage manufacturers to build supply chains using mostly homegrown companies. Meanwhile, another initiative to provide grants to Canadian companies so they can develop new 3D printing applications is the SMART program, launched and managed by the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters.

Is your business ready for the 3D-printing revolution? If not, don’t fret—as long as you keep an eye on this evolving trend, you can stay one step ahead of the competition and know when it’s time to hop on the bandwagon.

4 industries disrupted by 3D printing innovation

The 3D printing industry is taking off, with an expected compound annual growth rate of more than 24 percent between 2015 and 2020, according to IDC—which also predicts that 3D printing will bring in more than CAD$47.8 billion in worldwide revenue by 2020. The business opportunity is clear, but what’s more exciting is the evolution of 3D printing and the way it’s transforming businesses across sectors, not to mention the way people live their lives.

Let’s take a look at the top four industries being disrupted by 3D printing innovation, and what this means for the future.

1. Medicine

According to The New York Times, adoption of 3D printing can give everybody, regardless of their income level, access to things that matter. It’s being used to print implants, prosthetics, organs, and more. The potential applications for 3D printing in medicine are diverse and mind-boggling—and they’re already on track to save lives. One way is by creating models that researchers can use to better prepare for surgery.

In 2015, a medical team from the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong created a 3D-printed custom implant to reconstruct a man’s pelvis after he underwent surgery for a pelvic tumor. Not only did 3D printing enable the team to create an implant that was uniquely designed for the patient’s body, but they were also able to perform tests and trials to “ensure the implant integrity” and rehearse the procedure beforehand, increasing the chances of success. 3D printing also helped doctors in London achieve a successful outcome for a toddler named Mina Khan, who was born with a crippling heart defect. These physicians used a 3D printer to create a model of her heart before the procedure.

Advancing prosthetics is another opportunity. Modern prostheses can provide patients with motor function, but not a sense of touch. 3D printing is changing that. According to an article in Scientific American, 3D printing is allowing scientists to build “complex biomimetic hands with plastic bones and ligaments that mirror every point of articulation in a natural human hand.” The list goes on. The future of surgery is 3D printing.

2. The military

The evolution of 3D printing is also creating exciting possibilities for military use. Earlier this year, NASA and the US military announced that they used 3D-printed components to successfully test advanced prototype airplanes, spacecrafts, and ground vehicles. In addition, the USS Harry Truman was able to print 3D-printed parts at sea, which enabled them to maintain the ship without needing to return to port or have the parts flown in. The military has also looked into using 3D printing to develop an “Iron Man” type suit (otherwise known as a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) that could protect soldiers.

3D printing could save lives with its potential to improve ordinance disposal. Allen Tan, who was an ordinance disposal technician with the US military during the Iraq War, started the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, which 3D prints replica munitions to make training for these technicians more effective.

3. Construction

As 3D printing first made its way into mainstream consciousness, there was a lot of excitement about it’s application in building construction. In 2016, this vision has become a reality. A 3D-printed mansion was completed in 45 days in China and its builders claimed it’s durable enough to withstand an 8.0 earthquake. Dubai is home to the first 3D-printed office and has ambitious plans to 3D print a quarter of the city’s buildings by 2030. Singapore is planning 3D-printed public housing.

As the evolution of 3D printing continues to move forward—along with best practices and safety standards—it will become an increasingly common mode of construction. Furthermore, it will make housing more accessible, which is not only great for young people and families who need affordable homes, but also for people struggling with poverty, homelessness, or the aftermath of natural disasters. The scale and speed of 3D-printed buildings will continue to grow.

4. Food

Molecular gastronomy has taken the food world by storm throughout the past few decades as innovative chefs have experimented with new techniques and approaches to cooking. 3D printing is opening up a new frontier for this type of cuisine. A restaurant in London called Food Ink is offering a “multi-sensory food experience,” where a 3D printer produces dishes in front of diner’s eyes (diners who are sitting on 3D-printed chairs and using 3D-printed utensils).

Outside the realm of haute cuisine, 3D printing is also having an impact on humbler fare. Foodini lets people 3D print their dinners, whether they’re craving burgers, pizza, pasta, or chocolate. In addition to boosting creativity and convenience, the evolution of 3D printing is moving toward making food more nutritious, customizable, and sustainable, as reported by The Washington Post. In the future, 3D printing could make it easier for people with dietary restrictions to eat and make unappetizing sources of nutrients more appealing. For example, nursing homes in Germany are serving a 3D-printed food product called Biozoon Food Innovations to elderly people who struggle to chew or swallow, but don’t want to eat bland mush.

“We can see a time when you might be wearing technology that would be sensing what your body needs at any given time, whether you’re an athlete or whether you have a medical condition or whether you’re elderly,” Liz von Hasseln, creative director of the Sugar Lab at 3D System, told The Washington Post. “And that could theoretically link up to your printer at home and when you get home a specialized meal could be waiting for you that provides exactly what your body needs.”

These industries represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the evolution of 3D printing. Manufacturing, art, education, retail, and more will all be shaped by 3D printing in some way, and it’s the businesses that jump on board first that will see the greatest gains.

3D printing is more than just expensive plastic spoons

3D printing didn’t get off to a great start. The hype machine went into overdrive, pushed forward by marketing agendas and nerds burbling about the promise of new technology, but in the early days it was little more than a really expensive way to make a plastic spoon. Today, you can still print plastic spoons if you want—but somewhere along the way the technology evolved and actually became useful.

3D printing—as it’s generally known—is the melting of a chunk of plastic or resin into a liquid, and then pressing it out and letting it cool. Layer by layer, an object can be built. Here you find technologies like stereolithography (SLA), digital light processing (DLP), and fused deposition modeling (FDM).

But plastic isn’t the only medium that can be used. Selective laser sintering (SLS), selective laser melting (SLM), and electronic beam melting (EBM) are all technologies that allow metal powders or pellets to be melted, deposited, and then cooled. In the same way that using plastics or resins can build you a spoon or a model of the Eiffel Tower, depositing metals can build you gears, car parts, and much more.

A new level of industrial revolution

All of these technologies fall under the umbrella of additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is now used to make rocket engines and turbopumps that can take us to the moon. If that seems a little out of this world (ha), there are plenty of smaller, down-to-earth (ha!) production examples of additive manufacturing being used around the world.

Artists, of course, are at the forefront of additive manufacturing use. A quick Google image search for “laser sintering jewellery” will show some astonishing creations. Give an artist access to a new medium and they’ll create all sorts of interesting things that most people never thought possible. You can also find statues and even building-sized projects. For more day-to-day art, consider the example of Exquisite Nails Spa, a salon currently testing the use of 3D-printed nail art. What they produce ranges from mildly textured fake nails to awkwardly large butterflies that look like something out of The Hunger Games. Creativity is pushing the boundaries of the medium.

3D printing opinion doors for inclusion

3D printing is also useful for printing braille text with several options now available on the market. Viewplus and HP Inc. worked together to create Emprint, a variation on a traditional inkjet printer that can create everything from raised colour graphics to high-quality braille text. Additive manufacturing in a broader sense is also being used here. Plastic or resin-based technologies are commonly used to create signs and labels that meet the needs of both sighted and unsighted people. Additive manufacturing also allows for 3D maps to be produced and updated regularly, allowing for more inclusive maps of public spaces and large private buildings.

Meeting the needs of individuals with disabilities is a challenge being tackled by Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm. In 2015, they ran the Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities, which brought together and supported nonprofit organizations technologies for the more than one billion people worldwide with some form of disability.

Consider something as simple as the common walking aid. One of the biggest problems when purchasing and using a cane is ensuring you get one that is the right height and weight-bearing capacity for the individual using it, without making the cane itself overly heavy or complex by trying to make a one-size-fits-all device. Additive manufacturing can be used to create exactly the right device based on individualized needs.

Welcome, 3D natives

More advanced uses of additive manufacturing technologies can even embed sensors in devices created. This info can be sent back to the cloud, allowing for crowdsourcing of scientific data and encouraging refinement and further individualization of designs.

The biggest challenge additive manufacturing faces as an industry is likely that many active engineers and designers today aren’t aware of its full potential. They just aren’t used to thinking of manufacturing in this way. The current working generation has grown up in an era of mass production and production lines stamping out endless identical copies.

To fully unlock the creativity necessary to make use of additive manufacturing, we need to start with children. 3D printing is now so simple it’s a child’s toy, or, more accurately, something a child can use to make their own toys. If millennials were defined as digital natives who grew up with the internet, today’s children may as well be generation defined as 3D natives. Creatives and engineers are growing up in a world where individualized design—not cookie-cutter compromise—is their new normal.