Tag Archives: additive manufacturing

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.

Hyperglobalization—tracing the evolution and future of tech

The future of tech will likely appeal to fans of globalization. McKinsey & Company currently predicts that up to half of Fortune 500 companies will be located outside the United States by 2025, as developing nations compete at the highest levels of international commerce. Increasing wages in these nations will give rise to quite literally an entire world of new opportunities.

Those who aren’t fans of globalization question the cost of this redistribution of economic leadership. Pessimists argue that an increased quality of life for the rest of the world will mean a decrease for citizens of developed nations, while optimists believe increased productivity and commoditization will allow the rest of the world to advance without removing creature comforts from the developed world.

Without a time machine, it’s impossible to know who will be right. However, we can be sure the oncoming “hyperglobalization” will mean businesses of all sizes will face increasingly diverse competition. The future of tech is inevitably intertwined with the evolution of a global society.

Dealing with diverse data

The era where a handful of dominant American corporations decide what technology will look like and how it will be used is over. Technology has already become so integrated into everything that the one-size-fits-all model simply no longer applies. For IT practitioners, this means keeping track of more vendors and products and conducting more integration work in-house.

No single approach to enterprise storage will ever rule again. Neither public cloud nor on-premise computing will ever eliminate the other. No one user interface will ever meet all needs, and no one wearable device will ever contain all the sensors required. Most of the future of tech is in managing diversity and ensuring interoperation.

This isn’t too different from how the digital economy has always been—just more of it, with integrations between devices and products from vendors who may never have heard of one another. Integration between products is one thing when you work in an industry small enough that most everyone knows everyone else on the vendor side; it’s another thing entirely when a few hundred vendors become a few hundred thousand.

Coping with this demand requires massive changes in business culture, marketing, and sales. Just as we can’t expect a system administrator to understand every technology in IT these days, no business executive will ever learn and understand all the needs of their potential customers.

Finding growth

According to Arvind Subramanian and Martin Kessler, success in a hyperglobalized world will come from capitalizing on the shift to services as the primary economic driver. We’ve reduced the costs of pulling ore out of the ground and turning it into gizmos to the point where people can afford way more gizmos than ever, and we no longer need as much manpower to turn those raw resources into new tech.

We’re seeing growth in making technology do something useful—or, at least, entertaining. And as incomes rise worldwide, those who own the tech are increasingly diverse. People around the world demand entertainment that tells their stories and services and meets their cultural needs. Sensors, big data analytics, additive manufacturing, and increasing automation are allowing for quantum leaps in productivity while enabling just-in-time manufacturing tied to delivery systems nearly optimized to their theoretical limits.

The job of collecting data on what people need and want and then presenting that information in a usable format to business leaders will fall to IT. Those who run the business don’t and won’t have enough knowledge to fully comprehend what’s possible (technologically speaking). In time, no individual within an IT department will be able to honestly claim they know the extent of a given technology’s capabilities.

Predicting the future of tech

This isn’t a standard rant about how IT needs to learn to work with the business. It’s more fundamental than that. It’s about the limits of any one person’s brain to hold information. Solving real-world business problems—and making the business competitive—requires both knowing what’s possible and what’s required. Once, IT could act as a priestly caste, conducting needs assessments and dictating solutions from its sanctum. That will no longer be realistically possible.

Already, data flows on the internet have surpassed physical trade networks as the primary predictor of economic growth, according to a separate McKinsey report. The roads and sea routes that have mirrored the advancement of our species for millennia have been replaced by fibre optics and satellites. The future of tech is, as always, both responsive to and an enabler of societal transformation. This time around, the transformation is not restricted to the sphere of influence of a single empire. The future into which we dive is one where the notion of empires comes to an end and the whole of our species comes out to play.

The empires that will fall are not only the business, cultural, and political entities that shaped the lives of billions, but the empires of the IT practitioners who’re comfortable in their predictable routines and fearful of change. Our job as IT professionals is to use the tools of our trade to extract signal from noise, so we can give our coworkers the best possible options for solving their problems, because it’s only going to get noisier with time.