I have been familiar with the principle of Rapid Prototyping (RP) for several years but only recently realised just how far this technology has progressed.
I was listening to a couple of recent podcasts of Peter Day’s excellent World of Business. These are entitled “New Dimensions for Manufacturing” and discuss the current state of 3D-printing (also known as Additive Manufacturing) technology. It has been described by some as the “next industrial revolution” and, it seems to me, this may be an understatement.
In case you are not familiar with the concept, there are now machines that can convert a CAD (computer-aided design) file into a 3D reality. In the same way that an inkjet printer lays tiny droplets of ink onto a sheet of paper, these machines build up layer upon (very thin) layer of epoxy to create an object from the base up. Epoxy resin is the most common material but developments in building manufacture are now using the same methodology to create building components from concrete and a printer developed at Exeter University apparently creates products out of chocolate!
Only a few years ago, RP products were brittle and fragile, and only available in a murky grey colour. By contrast, multi-coloured 3D-printed products are already in stressful everyday use in Formula One motor racing, orthopaedic surgery and aerospace. Other applications will follow rapidly as costs come down.
There are other significant advantages to the process. It is possible to create a single item which would have to be made in several components by traditional methods (so assembly is eliminated). It is also possible to manufacture products that would quite simply be impossible any other way so designers can be freed to let their imagination run wild. Perhaps most significantly, it reintroduces the viability of replacing smaller elements and extending the life of vehicles, domestic appliances and other household objects. For example, the hose casing on your vacuum cleaner breaks and, instead, of throwing it all away and buying a new vacuum cleaner, you pop down to your nearest hardware supermarket (or corner shop 3D-printer?) where they download the CAD file (like an iTunes purchase) and 3D-print it for you whilst you wait. There are no stock-holding costs for the component, it was not made and shipped half way round the world, there is no waste in the manufacturing process and you extend the life of your vacuum cleaner. There are, therefore, very significant environmental benefits and this technology also has the potential to bring manufacturing back to the UK and reintroduce the specialist corner shop.
Perhaps it is only a few years before you are able to purchase a specialist computer mouse from us and find it is delivered in the form of one electronics module and a password-link to a computer download. That download will enable you to enter certain dimensions to configure the CAD file and then your local 3D-printer shop will create the body of the mouse to fit your hand exactly.
By then, you may even be able to 3D-print it at your desk!
In the meantime, Belgian 3D-printing specialist, Materialise, is already selling designer jewellery and household products manufactured in this way under the .mgx brand and Victoria & Albert museum features 3D-printed products at its London Design Festival 2011. More here.