Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is not a new technology by any stretch of the imagination, first developed by Charles Hull in 1984 who received a patent for the “Apparatus for Production of Three-Dimensional Objects by stereo lithography” on 11 March 1986. Hull defined stereo lithography as a method and apparatus for making solid objects by successively “printing” thin layers of the ultraviolet curable material one on top of the other. This method of manufacturing has come a long way since 1984, moving from rapid prototyping making use of a single print media to High-Volume Print Forming using as many as six materials at a time, and the range of those materials being almost limitless.
Some of the materials on offer include;
- Glass-ceramic composites;
- Piezoelectric materials (PZT);
- Oxides such as alumina (Al2O3), silica (SiO2), and zirconia (Zr2O3);
- Custom low-loss dielectrics;
- Structural metals such as nickel alloys, stainless steel, iron;
- Conductors such as palladium, silver, gold, platinum; and
- A wide variety of plastics with and without fillers.
These machines are also entering the commercial/home market with products such as the RepRap range of 3D printers, while not nearly as sophisticated as their industrial counterparts, as with anything it will only be a matter of time before we are using 3D printers that far exceed the expectations of the inventors of this technology in our homes.
There is also bioprinting that artificially constructs living tissue by outputting layer-upon-layer of living cells from the patient’s own body taking the chance of rejection to almost zero.
Surgeon Anthony Atala demonstrates an early-stage experiment that could someday solve the organ-donor problem.
The use of this technology is not centuries or even decades away, but years and many of us will live to see it come to be regularly used in the field of medicine.
There are serious benefits to consider that come with the use of additive manufacturing techniques, an obvious one is the considerable reduction in waste material created in the production process. Subtractive techniques generate waste as a result of the process of creating through the removal of material, requiring that there is surplus material. For parts of the aircraft industry there can be as much as 90% material being cut away to produce a part, with the excess material being no longer useful in the production of aircraft. The production of similar parts through the additive process creates the bare minimum of waste and at times the finished product can be as much as 60% lighter without sacrificing strength.
The speed of production is also vastly improved with the Additive format, while subtractive techniques may take several days or even weeks to go from prototype to end product additive techniques can accomplish the same outcome in a matter of hours. Also because the production is based on 3D computer modelling making alterations or custom parts is significantly easier to accomplish.
There is significant benefit to the quality of products when produced through the 3D manufacturing method, as instead of using a large piece of raw material to generate the finished work that may have anomalies and slight imperfections in it, the additive process allows for precise control of where each layer is placed and how they fit together. This not only creates better products through material use but also extends the life of these products, clearly a drawback for manufactures that require a shorter life cycle for their product to remain profitable and a definite advantage for end consumers.
Due to the digital nature of additive manufacturing technology there are clear ecological benefits to be had, as products can be designed in one location and sent via the internet to the location where the part is needed, resulting in less real world transportation and a much lower ecological footprint for the finished product.
As with any technological advancement additive manufacturing also has potential drawbacks, mainly in regard to our current social operation. It should come as no great surprise that with the ability to print products from the comfort of our own homes there will be impacts for the industrial manufacturing sector, which will result in a reduction of required production translating directly into job losses. As commercially available 3D printers are improved we could find that a vast part of the industrial production sector will be affected. This would also clearly impact directly onto shops that were focused on trying to sell goods that could now be printed.
Even the production of consumer goods such as cars could become affected when parts can simply be printed as opposed to machined in the traditional sense, resulting in less need for complex machines such as lathes and milling machines as well as the people skilled in their operation.
The consequences of this could have far reaching implications in regards to our current economic model, leaving many out of work and unable to take part in the continual consumption that is required in our current growth paradigm.
The ease of simply printing goods could also lead to an incredible increase in the amount of rubbish we are throwing away. If every family in the western world alone that currently owns a desktop printer suddenly found themselves the proud owner of a 3D printer, such as a “RepRap”, our current consumption for the sake of consumption mind set could lead to what would seem almost endless amounts of materialistic garbage being printed and enviably thrown away. The environmental impacts could potentially far outweigh the benefits of the technology if we were not mentally prepared to consider the damage we could do to our biosphere.
Indeed as our technological ability as a species surges forward so must our social model and global understanding be elevated in order that these technologies can be allowed to improve life, as opposed to becoming the tools that increase the speed and efficiency with which we will secure our own environmental and social demise.
It must become a social imperative that we begin to have the discussion with each other about what is and what is not important, to question and come to understand where our current economic and social order is taking us and why. Once we can view these topics not as taboo subjects relegated to the conspiracy theorists and mad hatters, we will be able to ascertain the true value of life, biodiversity, our greater planetary environment and work toward finding ways to secure and enhance these aspects of existence.