3D Printing: The Technology of Tomorrow?

Technology has really made a difference to the lives of people since the industrial revolution and the pace of change is speeding up each year. New discoveries are allowing us to explore untouched realms of technology that should improve the lives of everyone in the future. The normal method of building a desk would be to cut wood up into the shape of all the components. Then you’d assemble the individual parts of into the completed desk. Today, with the advent of 3d printer technology, you could print out a desk, with a fully functioning drawer in one pass!

Additive manufacturing is more commercially referred to as 3D printing and it makes the aforementioned printing of a desk possible. This new technology enables the users of these printers to create actual three-dimensional objects from a digital plan or scan of an object, which in this case is a desk. This is a highly advanced technology because it moves away from the traditional building or manufacturing methods and towards producing finished goods without cutting, drilling, molding and other ‘normal’ construction methods. 3D printing is considered to be a “what you see is what you get” process, because the finished product and the plan or template held in the printers’ memory are both virtually the same.

Basically, the 3D printer processes the digital file or template and converts this electronically held copy into an actual object inside of the restricted printing/manufacturing space. In order to create the finished object, the printer keeps building minute layers on top of each other in order to replicate the template or plan. It will deposit a layer where it needs to build up the object and won’t deposit anything where the template tells it not to. Over a long period of time the printer will build up the entire object, but at this point the object won’t have any strength.

Depending on the raw materials used, these layers piled on top of each other will be strengthened from exposure to an activating liquid or light process. The whole process is a lot like the creation of stalactites and stalagmites in caves, where the minerals dissolved in the water are slowly deposited on top of each other over hundreds or even thousands of years. The difference with 3d printing is that this process has been infinitely refined and the printer knows where each layer needs to be placed to re-create the finished product.

Up to now 3D printers have been able to create toys, jewellery, furniture, footwear and even bicycles. Scientists and engineers are still researching and investigating how these printers can be developed further to create advanced engineering components in the future. They are predicting that 3D printing can be refined and enhanced in the future so that they can be used for large-scale projects such as the manufacture of cars and buildings, or at least large parts of them. This type of printing is also seen to be of use in the creation of intelligent roof tiles and bricks that could have photo cells printed onto their surface that could be connected to the buildings electric supply, making it much more self sufficient and greener. If this technology does develop into this advanced state, then construction and assembly will certainly be much quicker and efficient in the future.

Imagine if you had a personal 3D printer at home, you would be able to design and personalise your own furniture! You would be able to print and create whatever you have in your imagination and make them into reality for use in your own home. This would be great for people who are into fashion and interior design. Although, I would imagine that the raw materials and agents needed to strengthen the creations will prove be quite expensive, making this sort of technology only available to the wealthy. Whereas you need to be wealthy to buy printer cartridges for your home printer.

Despite being considered a new technology, there are many different related white papers and studies that can be found that document the concepts used in additive manufacturing. There are also different instructional videos that can be streamed to show how useful this process could be to different industries. The ideas and methods used in this type of printing revolve around this basic concept: you have the possibility to create any different types of objects if you have the necessary materials, designs and software.

Because these printers have only recently been developed, most of them are currently relatively undersized when you compare them to other manufacturing equipment and machines. They can also only cater to a limited number of designs. Another drawback of 3D printing, which is currently being worked on relates to the length of time it takes to produce and strengthen the finished object.

However, despite the excellent potential this type of printing offers to the different industries, there are still quite a few drawbacks that’ll need to be overcome before the technology is seen everywhere. Although the use of 3D printing could improve efficiency for manufacturing companies, this would of course also equate to a loss of many jobs for factory workers. This would also have a negative effect on the economies of most western countries because carpentry, masonry and factory jobs will become more difficult to find, but this will hopefully be offset by with the creation of new types of employment from the new technology.

3D printing could also have a significant effect on the handmade crafts industry. Although each of these types of handmade items will be unique, 3d printers could also create a potential threat for the crafts industry. If the technology is ever developed to mass build household items in the future, then this too would have a significant negative impact on furniture manufacturing companies. However, in the early life cycle of this technology it is anticipated that it will be used for bespoke and high end types of furniture.

The further development of this printing technology will definitely have a dramatic impact on the commercial, industrial and personal lives of people in the future. Despite being a potentially great technology, society should safeguard itself in order to curtail any potentially negative effects of 3D printing on the wider economy. However, I remember reading in the 1980’s that offices would be paperless and computers would take away the need for employee’s…


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