Advances in technology are most often applied to the manufacturing sector. Whether it involves new materials, more advanced construction techniques, plasma or nanotechnology, this sector is quick to adapt to the possibilities offered by new technologies. Although the materials and techniques of manufacturing may change, the role it plays in society has remained static for centuries, with large factories making products for mass consumption. However, new technologies are available that may change the way goods are made.
In my nanotech manufacturing blog, I mentioned 3D printers in passing, but the potential of these devices deserves a more in-depth exploration. 3D printers work on the same principle as conventional ink printers, laying down material in order to create a structure, but these printers differ in material and function. While conventional printers work by laying ink down onto a piece of paper, a 3D printer extrudes solid material in a three- dimensional pattern in order to create a free-standing object. Most current 3D printers use extruded plastic, but other materials are also possible and provide different advantages and disadvantages. When in operation, a 3D printer uses a mechanical arm to lay down the material in whatever shape is desired. This technology has existed for some time, but it is only recently that advancements have made them commercially affordable. Although high-quality 3D printers are usually in the thousands of dollars range, this price is drastically decreasing, to the extent where a recent Kickstarter offered a kit for backers to build their own 3D printer for $325. As this technology becomes cheaper, easier to use, and more precise, it opens up many exciting possibilities.
One of the huge advantages of 3D printing is that it allows people to affordably create personalized items singly or in small batches. Where before it would be extremely expensive to create molds or manufacturing templates to produce an item, now anyone who has access to a 3D printer and a computer file containing their creation can build it. This offers unique possibilities to individuals and businesses, allowing entirely new business models that did not exist before. An example of this is a sadly postponed Kickstarter project for the creation of models and miniatures. The plan for this business is to affordably allow people to create personalized models to their specifications, rather than relying on store-bought kits. This offers many new and exciting possibilities for people interested in model-building.
3D printing offers many possibilities for people who want to create personalized products, but it offers even more benefits to fields where each product was already custom-made. An unexpected use of this technology can be seen in the fashion industry, with some companies producing fully articulated plastic dresses. However, an even more surprising example of this is in the medical field, which is already seeing many uses for this technology. Due to the difference in size and body shape, many things in the medical field must be built specifically for a single patient, and 3D printing offers a way to do this more easily and less expensively. Even something as simple as a cast must be fitted to an individual person, but 3D printing is already offering a way to make casts that are lighter, less confining, and allow access to the limb. This is done by printing a plastic latticework that is placed around the broken limb, providing the support of a cast that fits perfectly and does not cause the discomfort of conventional casts.
Another area of medicine where customization is vital is in the creation of artificial limbs. The use of 3D printing allows a much cheaper and faster method of creating a replacement limb; new versions may be easily crafted as the user grows. An example of this is a man who created a 3D printed prosthetic hand for his son that only cost $10, in comparison to conventional versions that can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. 3D printing is also being suggested for reducing the cost and time of creating glass eyes, and has even been used in the veterinary field to provide a duck with a prosthetic foot. Medical researchers even hope to combine 3D printing technology with cultured cells in order to create replacement organs for people with serious injuries.
This technology also offers interesting possibilities in the research and education fields, such as combining 3D printing with x-ray or magnetic scanners in order to print an anatomically accurate replica skeleton of an animal that is still alive. Some medical personnel believe that this technology can be used on individual patients in order to allow doctors to closely examine a damaged organ without requiring surgery.
The ceiling is truly the limit for 3D printing technology, and as it becomes cheaper and more easily available, it stands a very real chance of changing the entire manufacturing industry. Instead of buying generic goods, 3D printing allows people to create customized versions in their own homes, as well as offering possibilities to fields like medicine and education that have never existed before.