3-D printing, if it catches on, will change the world

If you believe the hype, 3-D printers are about to go mainstream. But what does it mean for the future of innovation, asksJamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 July, 2014, 10:41pm

The latest iPhone: download it now. That scenario might seem fanciful, but it's possible that in the future we'll be able to purchase and download what we can simply print off at home on 3-D printers.

"If 3-D printing catches on - as we believe it will - people will be printing much, if not all, of what they need," says Chris Elsworthy, CEO at 3-D printer maker Robox. Some are even suggesting that 3-D printing could bring forth a new industrial age, though what's behind notions of "open hardware" and "democratised production" is an organised, online resource of 3-D designs called the "Universe of Things".

If it catches on, people will be printing much, if not all, of what they need

An internet-led database of designs that can be downloaded by anyone, and produced anywhere, the Universe of Things already exists, at least in embryonic form.

Known as thingiverse.com and created by 3-D printer manufacturer Makerbot, it allows the 130,000 owners of 3-D printers to upload, download, share and remix designs. The goal is to have a blueprint available online for every object mankind can make.

It's early days. The tiny market for 3-D printers has so far been dominated by two companies, Makerbot and 3-D Systems, but there are plenty of others on the horizon. The Micro 3-D printer recently raised US$3 million on Kickstarter - after the designer appealed for just US$50,000 - and Robox, too, passed its funding target in days. Its makers want to put this 3-D printer in every home, school and office. Little wonder that analyst firm Gartner predicts that the 3-D printing market in the US - where most of the early action is taking place - will jump from US$90 million in 2013 to US$1.5 billion by 2017.

"Its uses are endless - in particular its everyday capabilities around the home," says Elsworthy of the Robox 3-D printer. "With the current reels available, objects that have been printed using the prototype model include coffee cups, bracelets, door handles, ornaments, plates, children's toys, kitchen utensils, whistles and coasters - all items that tend to be produced in one colour."

Mono-colour is still an issue with 3-D printing at present, but the materials extruded to create products are becoming more adaptable.

"In the future, Robox will be introducing other heads so that the printer will be able to be put to several different uses simultaneously," says Elsworthy. "These interchangeable heads are still in the development phase at the moment, but we're hoping that the printer will be able to expand its capability to "paste" materials, including clay, silicone, dough and even food like chocolate."

3-D printing fundamentally changes how things are made. Jesse Harrington Au, of US-based 3-D design software company Autodesk, says that 3-D printing is changing production processes by allowing more shapes and less waste.

"The design process as we knew it three years ago was based on the manufacturing technology at the time," he says.

"When designing most plastic parts, designers often had to make sure that the part was injection mouldable, but we are now able to create shapes that we previously could not, such as those with a lighter weight or more suited to fit the human body."

Thanks to better simulation software, designers now have the freedom to create objects solely based on form rather than functionality, but there are limits to what a 3-D printer can do. Plastic parts are easy, but if something more robust is needed - perhaps from metal or ceramic - then 3-D printing at home isn't going to work.

That's not preventing some from suggesting that 3-D printing could create a new industrial age where production shifts from factory to home, though there are many barriers to overcome.

"The challenges that need to be met before we can realise a new industrial age built on 3-D printing are daunting," says Elsworthy.

"In such a world virtual designs for objects would be much more valuable than the objects themselves, and businesses wouldn't be able to justify investing in design creation unless they were 99 to 100 per cent sure they could control the usage and distribution of their designs."

In other words, the piracy of virtual designs could pose a serious threat to entrepreneurs.

There are other barriers.

"That take-up will only happen when 3-D printing is as easy as going to the shops or ordering something online, and as cheap as buying something made externally," says Elsworthy.

"Given the speed at which the capabilities of 3-D printers are developing, it may not be long before this unlikely sounding scenario becomes reality."

More likely in the short term is 3-D printing out of the house, though still harnessing the Universe of Things. Cue 3-D printers such as Zeepro's Zim, a business-to-consumer printer (that also wowed Kickstarter) with Wi-fi and an embedded camera. It collected over 2,000 orders from 33 countries leading to its launch in June.

Zim will be used by companies to fulfil orders for 3-D printed goods from regular consumers - and here we're talking about customised, unique products. It's those two characteristics that could be where the money is.

So the Universe of Things effectively creates a database of products that can be tweaked and personalised by anyone, anywhere, but we consumers don't necessarily have to get our hands dirty.

That's the thinking behind the San Francisco and Paris-based online 3-D printing service Sculpteo, whose Cloud Engine API wants to get the masses to embrace 3-D printing as a design concept while leaving the actual printing to someone else. The resulting apps - which will be adopted and branded by third party companies - allow people to browse and order their 3-D printed designs, which will then be produced and sent through the mail.

You create a 3-D design in the first place, however, by using a 3-D scanner. Expensive desktop systems are available but, not surprisingly, there's also an app for that.

"123D Catch is a free app which allows you to create a fully rotational 3-D model of an object by taking photos of the object using an iPhone, iPad or any camera," says Nick Manning, senior manager, global field marketing for media and entertainment at Autodesk. "Previously, the only way to do this was to use expensive scanning equipment, but now the same effect can be created for free using a process called photogrammetry."

To create a model, he says, you simply need to walk in a 360-degree circle around an object and take photos at regular intervals - about 20 in total. The app then meshes all these images together to make a 3-D model in the cloud that can be viewed and cleaned up ready for 3-D printing.

If 3-D printing at home does catch on, what could it mean for China's export trade? Elsworthy thinks that the mainland is well placed to take advantage.

"China is investing heavily in 3-D printing technology and has even set up universities dedicated to the subject," he says. "So while the widespread uptake of 3-D printers may cause the volume of consumer products manufactured in the East to dip, China will remain one of the world's chief supplier nations."