To many people, 3-D printing (also known as "additive manufacturing") is one of those amazing technologies that make us feel like we're really living in the future. Being able to build something as complex as a prosthetic limb or a fully functional car still seems an unexplainable feat of magic rather than a normal advancement of technology.
However, 3-D printing has only become mainstream and less expensive in the last few years, yet is (plot twist) actually three decades old. Industrial designers and engineers, in fact, have been reliably using large and expensive 3-D printers to make prototype parts for airplanes and automotive vehicles since the late '80s. (For more on early 3-D printing, see Think 3-D Printing Is Brand New? Think Again.)
Why are 3-D printers so much more popular today, and where is this technology headed in the foreseeable future? Let's start by first talking about its past.
The History of 3-D Printing
The first 3-D printer prototype was developed by Dr. Hideo Kodama in 1981. He invented an innovative method which used a photosensitive resin polymerized by a UV light to manufacture three-dimensional plastic models layer by layer. Since he did not file the patent requirement in time, though, the first patent for stereolithography (SLA) was filed by Charles Hull only three years later, in 1984. A few years thereafter, in 1988, two other 3-D printing techniques were invented by Carl Deckard at the University of Texas, and Scott Crump at Stratasys Inc.
In 1992, Stratasys developed its fused deposition modeling (FDM), the manufacturing technology currently used by most 3-D printers. The 3-D printing sector slowly emerged as new techniques continued to be invented. Since CAD tools became more and more advanced and available, additive manufacturing became progressively more widespread.
During the early 2000s, some of the most amazing applications of 3-D printing technology saw the light, such as the first 3-D printed prosthetic legs. When all patents fell into the public domain in 2009, the revolution of 3-D printing began with dozens of pioneering companies starting to invest in new ambitious projects. Newer methods improved the efficiency and reduced the costs, making this technology more and more mainstream. In just six years, from 2010 to 2016, 3-D printing was successfully used to manufacture a fully functional car, a food printer to nourish astronauts in space, and aid surgeons with incredibly complex procedures.
The era of 3-D printing as we know and imagine it today has finally begun.
Price Drops and the World of Gaming
One of the most important reasons why 3-D printing became so widespread was the price drop. The base technology saw the biggest advancements, with low-end printers becoming more precise, efficient and yet affordable. Much like what happened with personal computing technology or mobile devices, 3-D printers are becoming affordable to almost everyone. Although they're still far from becoming common home appliances such as a fridge or a TV, many small-to-medium businesses can now afford to buy one of them.
Mass customization allowed many start-ups to 3-D print their own miniatures and figurines to develop new board games. Together with the chance to reach otherwise unattainable goals through crowdfunding platforms, many indie companies developed and launched their amazing ideas on the market. From traditional war games to more revolutionary projects, 3-D printing contributed to a new golden age in the board gaming world. Every day, millions of new beautifully sculpted models, figurines and miniatures are mass-produced and sold for the joy of enthusiasts all around the world.
Advancements and New Materials
One of the most significant advancements in 3-D printing was the addition of a large variety of new materials which allow for a wide range of applications. Prints can now be soft, malleable, flexible or extremely sturdy.
Shape memory polymers (SMP) have the ability to revert to their original shape after deformation when exposed to specific stimuli such as heat or pressure. Additive manufacturing can be used to print bone, cartilage and muscle structures for large-scale human implantation. New pills can be printed layer by layer to manipulate the drug's composition and release it into the bloodstream with precision once ingested. 3-D printing can even be used to make full use of the thinnest, strongest and most flexible material in the world: graphene.
However, one of the biggest steps forward in this technology came with the less futuristic metal printing. Although it is still much more expensive than plastic printing, its applications are so many (from the automotive to the aerospace and medical industries, to name a few) that its prices are expected to drop very quickly in the very near future. (For more on what 3-D printing is – and what it isn't – check out A 3-D Printer Isn't a Replicator Yet, But These People Are Using It Anyway.)
A Revolution Within the Revolution
3-D printing isn't just a technological revolution because of the products that could be manufactured with it. It has changed the traditional economies of scale of the manufacturing industry as a whole.
Different items can be produced with the same equipment just by changing the digital blueprint within the interface of a relatively simple software. Warehouses full of spare parts are now completely unnecessary, as they now exist only in the cloud, ready to be downloaded to any location in a matter of minutes.
The designs developed with 3-D printers can be much more sophisticated than traditional ones, requiring less material and work to make, as well as less finishing and machining to remove rough surfaces. Finished products are lighter, easier to transport and therefore less expensive.
3-D Printing and Nanotechnologies
Additive manufacturing is ready for marriage with another astounding technology: nanotechnology. Carbon nanotubes have already been implemented by several companies to reinforce 3-D printed plastic objects by coating their filaments with carbon nanotube ink. The result is a much stronger and more resilient product, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Some of the applications are simply breathtaking. In 2013, a group of American scientists developed an extremely efficient battery by using an ink containing lithium-ion nanoparticles. The whole battery was 3-D printed to be as small as a grain of sand! With this technology, we can foresee the production of 3-D printed flexible screens and batteries, or coating layers that are no more than one atom thick.
Future and Challenges
3-D printing is undoubtedly one of the most revolutionizing inventions of the last century. Although still in its early stages, it's destined to change the way we produce and manufacture almost everything, from construction to healthcare, in one way or another. However, there are still some challenges that make this technology rather immature to take the world by force.
Using 3-D printers to the full extent of their capabilities, or even just calibrating them, is still a quite complex task that requires proper training and a dedicated staff. Not every company has the resources to educate its staff on working on the modeling interfaces.
Although mass scale production is possible already, the industry is not yet ready to manage the volumes required by most current markets such as the automotive sector. 3-D printing techniques still need to scale with volumes before they can outmatch traditional manufacturing. A large-scale reconversion of our economy will necessarily face some form of resistance, as well.
All things said, as the cost shrinks and its usability expands, the use of 3-D printers will continue to penetrate deeper. The moment when additive manufacturing is going to become ubiquitous is getting one day closer every day.