3D Printing for the Mildly Curious
If you've ever seen one of our talks you'll know that we love additive manufacturing, or what's more popularly known as 3D printing. Coverage by the mainstream press tends to be either gimmicky or scary, which is why everyone remembers the 3D printed gun stories. Additive manufacturing is also a classic victim of the hype cycle: we were all promised Star Trek fabricators, instead we got shitty plastic figurines. As a result many people have written it off as something best left to the geeks in their garages. Meanwhile the geeks, who hang out in online DIY communities and subscribe to niche science, tech and engineering publications, already understand that additive manufacturing is one of the most profoundly disruptive technological developments of our time: a fundamental shift away from a dominant mode of production that’s been around for more than a century.
It's already transformative at the commercial scale. Engineers are printing jet engines, planes, cars and buses. Architects are printing bridges, houses and emergency shelter. Scientists in labs are printing hair, drugs, soil and blood vessels. And we can pretty much print in any material now – from human stem cells to asteroids. The reason you don’t hear about most of these innovations is because a lot of these projects aren’t happenening at scale. They’re still prototypes and proof of concept designs. Sure, we might have the ability to print with high quality metals, allowing us to create objects with the kinds of surface tolerances and tensile strengths to withstand jet engine pressures. But it’s not yet possible to do it in a way that’s cost effective. The old model of subtractive manufacturing is still cheaper for mass production than additive manufacturing.
Not for much longer though. That’s because we’re starting to improve additive manufacturing techniques. In a process called laser sintering for example, they take powdered metal and blast it with lasers to fuse it into specific shapes. Right now the process uses a single laser, which moves really quickly to make the object. That was the technique used by Amaero, a small Melbourne-based company that made the world's first 3D printed jet engine. A month ago however, we got wind of a US company that thanks to improved softtware, can use multiple lasers at the same time, speeding up the process by a factor of 10 and lowering the cost by 20. It’s the equivalent of moving from the technique of inkjet printing with a nozzle you used to get in the 1990s, to the high speed laser printing of documents that's standard in most offices today.
And it's going to shoot us well past a tipping point for commercial cost effectiveness. Small teams, armed with additive manufacturing machines, skilled engineers and direct access to raw materials are going to spread across the globe. Once that happens it’s going to be carnage in the manufacturing industry. That's the business model already being developed by companies such as Conflux. It leads to a totally new type of enterprise: lean, agile and based around point of service delivery. Bad news for industries that rely on economies of scale or cheap labour. Once you remove those factors as a competitive advantage, you level the playing field. A 3D printing machine after all, costs the same in China as it does in the US or Australia.
Remember too, that we're constrained in the way we think about additive manufacturing. It's still too early to understand its full potential. Most working engineers and designers remember a time before 3D printers. The same is not true of the 19 year old students of today. They're not limited by the legacy thinking of the generations that learned how to design on paper. They’ll be designing in mixed reality, and they'll also be entering the workforce at around the same time as the artificial intelligence revolution enters its full swing. That means that instead of creating the designs themselves, the engineers of the future are going to be acting as curators, setting design parameters for our machines, which can create millions of digital versions until one emerges that best fulfils the criteria. Say goodbye to 400 years of boxy thinking as our species discovers that nature tends to prefer round, organic shapes because they’re stronger, lighter and more pleasing to the eye.
If you liked how things used to be before, don't freak out. There’ll always be a place for stuff that's designed using old tools and techniques. New technologies don't wash away old ones. They just get stacked on top of everything that came before. In the future there will be a niche market for objects made with moulds and welds, in the same way that there's one today for objects made using a lathe and a chisel. Technology is always unevenly distributed too, which is why advanced manufacturing will arrive a lot later in Zambia than it does in Singapore. But it is coming, and not only is it more efficient, more cost effective and better for the environment - it's going to completely change our notions around design itself. Welcome to an additive world.