Trends in 3D Printing

Trends in 3D Printing

In a recent survey – The Youth Tech report by youth research agency Voxburner and YouGov, (seen exclusively by Marketing Week) found that young people who were asked to name the ‘future’ technologies that most interest them – 3D printing came top, with 42 per cent of the vote. Second was the ‘internet of things’ with 34 per cent with Wearable technology and augmented reality being less well received, with 24 and 14% of young people selecting them, respectively.

In monitoring the uptake of 3D printing by consumers and businesses I am intrigued at the prospects of small local bureaus or implants in bigger stores popping up to service an eclectic range of consumer 3D print needs – much like 2D print centers and copy-shops.

From small beginnings such as Asda’s touring “Mini-Me” service where customers are scanned and their 3D coordinates are sent off to 3D print figurines of themselves in coloured ceramics (available in 2 weeks after the scan) through to a growing number of bureaus that will take 3D data and produce 3D printed objects using a range of processes and materials.

Meanwhile companies like 3D Systems who manufacture 3D printers, are developing machines for printing edibles with their ChefJet™ series of printers capable of printing chocolate, vanilla, mint, and other flavours to create unique confections and edible novelties and are reputedly working with Hershey in the US to explore future possibilities. 3DS recently appointed entertainer and entrepreneur as their chief creative officer. Will who has an eye for these things says “3D printing lets you get involved, be a part of the creative process and the story of the items you make”.

Another venture in the area of printed food is Italian pasta producer Barilla working with TNO Eindhoven in the Netherlands develop a 3D printer or pasta dough. Apparently a number of machines have been installed in restaurants that can produce pasta in virtually any shape a customer wants – so long as they have a suitable 3D file of their design.

Like a lot of things technical there is more to 3D printing than meets the eye. Different materials and applications determine the technology behind the printers themselves. Non-plastic materials typically use gypsum powder with a ‘printed’ binding agent to create the parts themselves. These can be single or multi-colour eliminating the need for post finishing. These powder based systems are often less wasteful as the non-hardened bed of powder can be reused again and again. Parts generated using this approach are good for conceptual models (good for appearance) offering limited functional performance.

Plastics based systems can offer an expanded range of plastic materials that deliver the functional performance of ABS, polypropylene and polycarbonate plastics in a single 3D printer.

The range of actual 3D print processes available sounds like something out of a Brian Cox lecture with names like Stereolithography (SLA) – based on a UV sensitive liquid resin which is cured by a UV laser beam that in turn is guided by the 3D digital data: Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) – based on bonding together of powdered materials; Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) – builds objects by laying thermoplastic material down in layers through a nozzle from material introduced as a plastic filament or metal wire driven by 3D data; Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) – another additive layer manufacturing process using fine metal powders to directly build metal components.

Something that often escapes mention is the fact that to print something in 3D it must first exist as 3D data which in the case of copies of exiting things may be generated from scanning an object or for an entirely new object will need to be built. The 3D CAD skills required to do this are considerably more involved than say creating a word document or even 2D imaging using Photoshop which is already beyond the capabilities of most people who haven’t been specially trained.

So whilst a printer such as the 3DS Silver Cube can be bought from Staples for around £1,200 – without these 3D CAD skills the machine will only be useful for printing ‘off the shelf’ items – in other words objects that have already been modeled by someone else.

However, there are a growing number of 3D printing suppliers that can also offer 3 dimensional design services to help develop the object in the first place – whether by reverse engineering (3D scanning or CT scanning) an existing item and subsequently modifying it or by building something from scratch.

Putting the design question to one side what is particularly exciting about these processes is the prospect of shortening current supply chains and the environmental benefits this will bring. There is already a trend to bring back manufacturing previously displaced to the far-east (In-shoring or Re-shoring) because the cost benefits of manufacturing in far-flung places are rapidly disappearing. Almost zero inventory and the elimination of transportation costs / impacts would result from more localised production of more and more individual ‘made to order’ products.

So whether it’s a case of creating unique new products or simply ‘downloading’ and locally printing 3D parts these technologies are already starting to have an impact in terms of product customisation and the potential reinvention of whole supply chains.