Although it’s no longer new, 3D printing is considered a revolutionary technology with valued applications across a wide range of industries. Now used to create everything from stationery to replacement body parts, 3D printers have already improved our lives in many ways, and the future is looking bright.
Before these fascinating devices and their outputs were introduced into the mainstream, from offices to hospitals and many places in between, they went through several iterations to ensure the suitability of the technology. Below, we’ll explore these stages in the technology life cycle, and take a look at what the 3D printing future may hold.
1. The Early Days of 3D Printing
In its early days, 3D printing was seen more as a novelty technology than a legitimate extension of existing technology in fields like manufacturing and medicine. In the 1980s, the 3D printer went from a concept, seeded in Japan and tested in France, to a prototype created by Charles Hull, who became known as the father of 3D printing. Hull’s process of stereolithography used ultraviolet light to transform acrylic-based liquids into solids – and although it was both revolutionary and significant, many still saw the technology as a novelty. However, the basis of the 3D printing process – additive manufacturing – would soon spark a breakthrough in the form of polymer 3D printing.
2. The Prototyping Revolution
By the 1990s, polymer 3D printing had begun to produce parts that were fit for use, setting the stage for “the prototyping revolution”. An early form of additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping streamlined the prototype production process. 3D printing can take functional parts from design to completion without complex mould tools, speeding things up drastically for manufacturers.
3. Expanding Horizons: 3D Printing Materials
When 3D printers first came onto the market, basic plastics and photosensitive resins were the main materials in use, and that served many purposes – but since the expansion of production capabilities, 3D printing technology has gone from strength to strength. Now, these clever devices can be used to make everything from jet engines, medical devices and parts for home appliances to consumer electronics and even dental devices. There’s almost no limit to the things you can produce, particularly now that 3D printers are available to consumers in small, cost-effective packages.
4. Industry Adoption
The medical device manufacturing industry – is used to create medical implants, shaped individually to suit each patient. Few phenomena could have tested and proven this capacity better than COVID-19, which forced manufacturers across a range of specialisations to pivot and start producing much-needed medical equipment like masks and respirators.
The aerospace industry has also benefited from the creation of highly practical devices and fixtures. Single 3D printed structures have been created to replace a jet engine assembled by the traditional, inherently complex method, with multiple benefits – not only is the process less time-consuming, but it also produces a part which is lighter and stronger than the original.
Having seen such practical uses in action, designers, developers and enthusiasts turned their attention to creating useful things in an array of other industries. For example, educators have embraced the creative potential of 3D printing across many subjects, printing models in subjects like architecture, history and graphic design. The technology has also come in handy in the fashion industry, where designers have created clothing and jewellery using 3D printers. Perhaps most surprising is the use of 3D printing technology in the food and produce sector, with some trailblazing producers using it to create edible items.
Embedding green practices into everyday life is a top priority for truly eco-conscious people, and 3D printers offer another opportunity to do just that. Not only do these devices reduce material waste during the production process by using only what is needed, often using recycled, reusable and biodegradable plastics, but they also reduce waste at several other touchpoints – from the parts required for production to the fuel used in the transportation process.
6. Future Trends and Possibilities
With so many exciting 3D printing developments already in existence, the future of the technology is looking bright! In fact, the worldwide market for 3D printing products and services is expected to exceed 40 billion U.S. dollars by 2024. This kind of money reflects investments in things that really matter to the broader population – pursuits such as bioprinting, the name given to the process of creating biological structures – tissues, organs and cells – using a 3D printer. We can also expect an increased focus on cybersecurity and quality requirements.
3D printer technology already has a fascinating past, but its evolution is far from over, with countless prospects for brilliant – and in some cases, life-changing – new developments to come. For now, we may speculate about the future of this technology, but given the rapid pace of developments existing, it’s likely that we’ll soon be seeing the fruits of this labour sooner rather than later.