A 3D printer makes 3Dimensional objects by a process called stereolithography, a patented process invented by Chuck Hull. Instead of using ink the printer replicates objects using liquid material which then solidifies.
Industrial 3D printing systems can cost from about $15,000 to $1million. There is also the 3D printer equivalent of a home printer such as the Cube and has an online service called Cubify.
Additive Manufacturing is an adaptation of scanning and photocopying technology, whereby a laser printer with a 3D head replicates a product using data stored on software. Loughborough University has created a one piece car door handle whereby the components have been reduced to one and for instance the springs are integrated into the overall moulding. They are also looking at applications in the construction industry using concrete so structures are being built out of concrete with the laser headed machinery directing the application of the material.
The plane component manufacturer EDAS is making low volume bespoke products for the aerospace industry, whilst car manufacturer BMW through their EOS company is manufacturing 3D manufacturing printers.
The potential of Additive Manufacturing through the use of a 3D printer is potentially boundless ranging from components, books, jewellery, and even medical care; last year in the Netherlands surgeons printed a new titanium jaw for a woman with a severe bone infection.
They are already adapting 3D printers to print food in the form of cupcakes. Feed in the mixture and print a cupcake, and just as you were trying to get to grips with a Pot Noodle.
In the fashion industry designers are creating one off shoe designs for the catwalk by use of 3D printing.
Architects can use 3D to create one off 3D models and what about for prop design and manufacture? Imagine one was filming in a remote area, then take a 3D printer, the right ingredients and print on site. What if an intricate piece of technical kit breaks and a spare part is required urgently by the production crews. It will not be unfeasible to download the manufacturer's software and print the part.
The attraction of the process is that large warehouses are not required. You can manufacture to order and also manufacture on site or at a more local location. This will cut emissions, haulage and storage costs.
The processes are looking at using newer lighter materials and again to save cost, weight and emissions. As the processes are stored on computer the product can be adapted or customised to meet the need of the customer. Software is already available whereby one can undertake your own digital forming. In other words, if you have the right equipment and software then one could adapt a product to your needs.
Instead of buying an off the peg door handle in store, you could instead programme the computer with your required adaptations, and it manufactures for you in store. One area where it is seen this will have great use is products such as jewellery.
The attraction of 3D manufacturing is easier entry to market. You can have a design and be manufacturing it very rapidly. One area for development in the additive manufacturing market is lead time in the manufacturing cycle itself.
The 20th Century was very much about Mass Industrialisation and accepting the product made for you was any colour you want so long as it is black. Gradually, we are moving to Mass Customisation, and more so by using Additive Manufacturing processes and then the next development from there will be finally mass individualisation whereby the customer in the shop, or at home will be adding creativity and design to make the product unique to them.
There are limitations such as the type of materials you can use for the moment, eg it does not work with rubber, foam, aluminium and glass. Also size, the processes may be more suitable for smaller products. Even so as the processes develop, it will become an increasing part of the manufacturing landscape. Also, because many costs are reduced and there still requires a high skill involvement it may bring various types of manufacturing back to Europe previously outsourced on costs grounds.
Whilst the technology is exciting offering huge potential the legal landscape will have to adapt as well. The issues that immediately spring to mind include Intellectual Property (IP) rights. If a product is customised or adapted who owns the copyright and other IP rights in the final adapted product? What about product liability issues? Say adaptations are made which causes weaknesses or dangers then who will have responsibility? Who is responsible for the manufacture process, and what if a fault was caused by the operator user?
One plus point is these processes may lead to increased use of franchising whereby a manufacturer has local satellites manufacturing its products under, licence using software and hardware provided by the parent company or franchisor.
Easier entry to market may encourage innovation turning into being a product in the market place. Quicker lead times to market will mean Patent Registration and licensing having to work to a shorter lead time as well.
If companies are involving greater creativity on the part of the customer will this affect the value of a business, bearing in mind increasing value in a product is to be found in its protected IP rights. Will the value be dissipated if individuals are adapting a product and moving it away from its original form? 3D Manufacturing or Additive Manufacturing is currently present on a relatively small scale, but it needs to mature and develop before it has a fundamental impact on the market place.
However, Additive Manufacturing is here, and now it is time for the legislators and regulators to respond quickly to ensure it can work in practice before the process takes grip of the mass market.