3D printing started as a novelty. But now it’s being hailed as a game changer for everything from the aerospace industry to the environment. So how might 3D printing impact your business as the tech goes mainstream?
Cutting down on cost
This tech has significant advantages over other manufacturing techniques for both large and small businesses, says Jav Seyendran, 3D applications specialist at Canon UK. “The ‘printing’ process is incredibly efficient, as it only uses the exact amount of material needed, producing far less waste,” he points out. “This means small companies looking to make an initial batch of products, or prototypes can do so at a vastly reduced cost.”
Raising the bar
Forget 3D printing – how about 4D printing? “The idea behind this is that certain materials react and change shape over time – the fourth dimension – in response to environmental stimuli, such as a change in temperature or moisture,” says Professor Steven Van Belleghem, author of When Digital Becomes Human. “Imagine if those 3D printed football boots could have studs that expand and contract, depending on how wet or muddy the playing surface is. Or what about a lightweight running shoe that becomes waterproof when it starts raining? It may feel like science fiction at the moment, but pioneering companies are working towards making these ideas a reality.”
Creating a prototype or a one-off used to be a costly, difficult and long-drawn-out process. But the advent of 3D printing technology means that businesses can now prototype their ideas for testing quickly and at a low price, which provides an edge over the competition. You’re no longer stuck with a mould to make the same thing – you can make unique things quickly and get them out there at rapid pace, giving a boost to research and development. “Some companies wait weeks to get test models built, but with 3D printing they now wait days, meaning they are able to iterate their ideas faster and test more possibilities,” says Seyendran.
This ability to create one-offs has huge customisation potential for everything from medical supplies to sweets: prosthetics, for example, can now be ‘printed’ using scans from individual patients, enabling a perfect match. The technology is now far more accessible to SMEs, says Melissa Snover, MD of Katjes Magic Candy Factory, allowing all kinds of industries to explore its possibilities. They’re using it to enable customers to 3D print ‘sweet selfies’ – their selfie on a piece of candy. “In food manufacture, 3D printing is enabling us to produce customisable gifts for individuals in a way that was not possible before,” she says.
Saving the planet
As resources become harder to find, everyone’s going to have to get better at making the most of what they have. 3D printing techniques in the aerospace industry are leading the way. “Instead of using vast amounts of expensive materials, you're only using the materials that you need,” says Garth Stevenson, area sales manager for industrial manufacturing firm EOS UK. “The 3D technology is basically depositing material where you need it, whereas conventional processes take a chunk of material and chew away at it until you get to the final form. In most instances, 90 per cent of that material becomes scrap. With our technology, you have a very small scrap amount - only about ten per cent. As our planet becomes smaller, commodities will become scarcer and their price will go up. Our tech leads us towards overcoming these issues for the future.”
Transporting goods and materials uses vast amounts of fuel: widespread 3D printing could make that a thing of the past. “One can see a future where localised manufacture becomes a reality. Items and products will be made in the areas where they are most needed,” says Seyendran. “No longer will vast stocks of material be held in warehouses then shipped miles; instead they are made where they are needed and when they are needed, saving space, time, and cost.”