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.