3D printing – not so futuristic

3D printing – not so futuristic

April 28, 2014

Posted in:
Small Businesses

3D printing, once so futuristic, is verging on mainstream adoption. The worldwide 3D printer market will see unit shipments grow by 10 times between 2012 and 2017, according to analyst firm IDC.

3D printers are getting cheaper and traditional printer suppliers such as HP are reported to be planning to launch into the market this year. The printers are already capable of printing out simple products such as phone cases on demand, saving on manufacturing waste and transportation costs.

There is also a growing number of businesses offering personalised products, from models of people through to medical items such as orthodontic braces. 3D printing is expected to drive ‘mass customisation’, allowing businesses to create one-off pieces cheaply and easily and reproduce parts as required on the spot. Property developers, for example, can do anything from producing a one-off plumbing part as needed to creating a one-off work of art to give a property the wow factor.

The plastic needed to feed a 3D printer makes printer ink look positively cheap, but businesses are doing the maths and the cost of buying and running a 3D printer is, for some, starting to show a good return on investment, enabling fast prototyping and getting to market ahead of rivals.

Some businesses are thinking big when it comes to 3D printing. Kor Ecologic is developing its second prototype of a 3D printed car, called URBEE 2. The two-passenger vehicle will have its entire exterior and interior 3D printed. Kor Ecologic is seeking crowdfunding for the environmentally friendly car. If crowdfunding is successful, in 2015 two people and a dog will attempt to travel from New York to San Francisco in two days, using 10 gallons of bio-fuel.

The emerging technology is also open to abuse; it can be used for counterfeiting and reproducing weapons. Bloomberg has reported that instructions have been published for creating a plastic firearm using a 3D printer and that someone even fired a real bullet with it before the instructions were taken down from the web. And of course, the day may come when a 3D printer can print a 3D printer!

Top applications for 3D printers today: 

Prototyping – This is perhaps the leading application of 3D printing today. Uses can range from prototyping new products to creating 3D representations of two dimensional architect designs for planning purposes. 3D floor plans help to give the prospective buyer a true feel of a property’s potential and the reality of actually living there.

Medical – 3D printing is producing real world products from dental implants to hearing aids. It is also used to create copies of organs and anatomy for planning medical procedures and in future may be used to create actual organs for transplants.

Mass manufacturing – Even as far back as 2011, 20% of the output of 3D printers was final products rather than prototypes, according to Wohlers Associates.  By November 2013, according to ‘Wohlers Report 2013’, final part production rose to 28.3% of the $2.2 billion spent in the preceding year on 3D printing products and services worldwide. In 2003, it represented only 3.9% of revenues.