The 3D printing technology that lets us print out objects is advancing at breakneck speed. This week’s column takes a quick look at the features of this revolutionary technology that can shake/disrupt the traditional manufacturing techniques.
Conventional printing (2D printing) takes a virtual document, a page of text and prints it out. Once you have a virtual document you can get it printed any number of times; you can send it to anyone, anywhere and they also can print it out- instead of having someone to write it down.
What a 3D printing does is that it builds an object from scratch using a 3D printer. Instead of writing a page, you can design an object, say, the cover for your smartphone and get it printed out. Once you have the phone cover designed you can print out any number of covers; also, if you wish to donate a cover to your friend, instead of sending it physically you can send the design and your friend can get the cover printed out (of course, if she has access to a 3D printer). The point is that we create the design of an object using our computer and turns this design into a real-world object- like spoon, glass, knife or something like that.
The 3D printing technology involves pulling in a filament of plastic (or any other 3D printing material), heating it up, melting it and then extruding it as a finer noodle of the input material and laying it down onto the print platform.
The digital model is turned into a material object by adding the melted material layer by layer until the desired object is made. For this feature, the 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing- you add the material bit by bit to create the required shape (see the screenshots below).
One advantage is that 3D printed objects take less material compared to the traditional manufacturing process, which adopts subtractive manufacturing techniques- you take a block of material and selectively remove parts of the material bit by bit to get to the desired shape.
Now, in 2D printing, you can scan a text page, create its digital equivalent and print that off again. You can do the same thing with 3D printing as well. Let us say you have a wine glass and wish to make something similar. You can scan the wine glass, put into the computer and using a 3d design program modify the digital object (the same way you would modify a text document) and print the glass several times. Imagine going to a shoe shop, where you can have your feet 3D scanned and have a 3D printed shoe either mailed to you or printed in the store.
The disruption potential of 3D printing technology is huge and the progress made by this technology in the recent past is simply astonishing. In fact, it is invading almost all industries. The surprising fact is that it is even getting into the food industry. The technology lets you print any food material (like the 3d printed chocolate shown below) into the desired shapes.
According to the video report, it is predicted that within a decade or so food printers will become commonplace in the average household’s kitchen (as microwaves and toasters). One obvious advantage of 3D print food is that it enables us to provide food tailored to the personal dietary requirements of an individual.
The latest 3D print story is its intervention in the housing and construction industry. Efforts are on to use the 3D printing technology to produce a 3D printed house. Recently online tech news sites have been agog with the story of 3D printer that can print a house under $4000. If interested to see how this happens, take a look at this video.
It seems in the not too distant a future, a time may come in which we can download and print a house in a day or two. Perhaps you may think this is an incredible idea and a faux news. But the start-up Icon strives to turn this idea into a reality.
The 3D printing technology is a very radical way to think about manufacturing. It could eliminate lots of problems with the current manufacturing process. If the 3D print technology lives up to its promise, it is going to be more efficient and cost-effective. Let us say you have a printer and all of a sudden a plastic piece in it breaks. You can ask the manufacturer for a replacement of this part. In the current scheme of things, the manufacturer has to send the part physically and this may take lots of resources and time. As stated earlier, the 3D printers create products from digital files. This file is not different than a word document or MP3 file. It can be e-mailed as a file attachment or downloaded from a server and printed out locally. So, in the 3D printing world, the manufacturer only needs to simply send the digital file containing the design of the piece and you could get it 3D printed out.
From economies of scale to economies of scope
When we go back in time, during the ancient times, people generally make stuff as needed. Manufacturing was generally done inside houses and anyone who needed the stuff had to just walk to the manufacture’s house to procure it. If you needed a lock you simply had to walk to the house of the blacksmith. But the industrial revolution disrupted this mode of production. People went to factories and started producing a variety of products. The advantage here is that one could produce more products with less effort and the mass production essentially brought down the cost.
The success of the current manufacturing techniques is mainly due to the advantage of economies of scale, which is termed as the reduction in the average cost of production by increasing the size of the output being produced. However, in 3D printing, economies of scale does not seem to have much value. It does not involve much setup cost. Once you have a design you can customise it in any way without incurring any additional cost. This means whether you produce 1000 identical products or 1000 different products the average cost will remain the same. So, in the case of 3D printing, instead of economy of scale, economy of scope comes into play. Note: Economy of scope involves lowering average cost by producing more types (variety) of products.
The 3D printing could make manufacturing less capital intensive and might promote small-scale entrepreneurs. It seems, like ancient times, now we could almost print and make anything within our homes again. People design (products) in their homes and send them all across the globe. Let us say you have a really cool idea for a lamp (or something like that); you can make a 3D printable design of it and send it across to anyone you choose. If one cannot afford a 3D printer, a local 3D printing shop could emerge. This means that manufacturing might become more local.
(With technical inputs from Mr. Shanmuganathan, Workshop Manager, 3D’ing, Manufacturer of 3D Printers, Chennai.