The world is full of man-made objects. From home piping to coffee mugs and everything in between, these objects have traditionally been mass produced in factories, using processes that are slow and cumbersome. But 3D printing could change all of that, allowing the everyday consumer to print their home goods, while also allowing industrial giants to manufacture parts quicker than ever before.

3D printing

Many people wonder if the technology will ever be easy enough for the average consumer to use on their own, but this might be a moot point, as 3D printing has the opportunity to be a huge industry just via commercial and industrial applications.

How 3D Printing Works

Printing from digital files has been around for decades. Traditionally, a computer file is sent to a printer, where the data is formatted and printed onto a (relatively) two-dimensional piece of paper. 3D printing takes this process one step further by allowing three-dimensional objects to be printed from digital files.

This is done by laying down successive layers of material from the bottom-up until the printing is complete. This process can take several hours or more, depending on the size of the object. Objects are designed via computer software, and the design file is transferred to the printer which begins the process of producing the object using one of the many types of filament that can be used as the material for the printed object.

3D printing machine

Much like many other technologies, 3D printing experimentation began well before the technology was known to the mainstream public. The idea for this type of printing came from the need to create quick and cheap prototypes for manufacturing. Before printing, prototypes needed to be created by hand, a very labor intensive process. In the 1980s, a prototyping system using photopolymers, which harden when exposed to light, was created. A few years later, this type of printing was taken to the next level using stereolithography, which uses light to form molecules together in layers.

Today, 3D printing machines come in all sizes, with some already available for home-use. Yet, it’s the industrial applications of 3D printing that has the most potential to change the way we think about building and constructing objects.

Uses

3D printing seems like a way to easily print new consumer products. In reality, there are many more uses for this technology than you might think. The uses of 3D printing are so wide that a report by the European Commission expects the 3D printing market to reach €9.6 billion by 2021.

Maybe the oldest applications for this technology is for printing prototypes. Greg Paulsen of third-party manufacturer Xometry remembers how this was used regularly. “Before we called it 3D printing, it was called rapid prototyping,” Paulsen said. “It was seen as a way to get close enough to a functional model.”

3D printing devices can already produce many useful household items, like measuring spoons, paper clips, or kids toys, among many other things. Other, more ambitious consumer printing ideas, like shoes and clothing, are coming along slowly. Printing such items is not yet perfected, but does show signs of steady improvement.

In the medical arena, 3D printed organs have actually been around since the late 1990s. Scientists were able to print scaffolds of the human bladder and allow human tissue to form around the scaffolding. When the organ was fully formed it was implanted successfully into the patient. Since that time, the technology has rapidly advanced and is close to being able to recreate organs needed for transplants in sick patients.

Still, it’s industrial uses of this technology that might be the most exciting. 3D printers are already able to produce all of the objects necessary to build a five-story building. The original use for 3D printing, prototyping, is also used in the oil and gas industries, where parts for pipelines and other infrastructure can be prototyped quickly and for a fraction of the cost previously. According to BP head of technology David Eyton, the current process for creating an energy pipeline is not efficient. “You have to wait for somebody on land to make up the piece of pipe and then ship it out and install it,” Eyton says of the current process. “It would be really cool if you could print it in SITU [a method of producing oil]. It would save an awful lot of trouble.”

If that wasn’t enough to display the limitless possibilities for the 3D printing industry, Russia recently announced its plans on using the technology to help in large-scale construction projects on the moon.

Ease of Use Concerns

The process of using a 3D printing machine today is not so simple. It requires at least some working knowledge of computers and design to even attempt it. 3D printing uses computer-aided design (CAD) software to create electronic files for printing. CAD is extremely hard to master, especially for those who don’t already have a computer science or design background. Even small, seemingly simple objects are hard to design via CAD.

As it stands today, the vast majority of the public don’t have the skills to create and design objects to be 3D printed. There are some companies which are attempting to decrease the steep learning curve of 3D printing by creating more simple, easy to use printers. The Makerbot Replicator+ is one such option. According to the company, “As a global leader in desktop 3D printing, we set the standard in reliability and ease-of-use by providing effective solutions for every stage of the desktop 3D printing process.” However, products like the Replicator+ are still limited in their printing ability for the average person.

How 3D Printing Works

For those who are comfortable with the design aspect but don’t want to spend money on a printer, 3D printing services are available. Just send your CAD file to a 3D printing service, and they will provide you a price quote to print your newly created object.

Is Regulation Needed?

Many have wondered whether tighter 3D printing regulation is needed to ensure objects aren’t printed that are security and safety risks. This question was accelerated by the discovery that users can print guns designed using CAD and printed on 3D printers.

In 2013, a company by the name of Defense Distributed finished a blueprint for a plastic gun which can be produced via a 3D printer. It wasn’t long before the United States government demanded the plans be taken down from the website, leading to an intense legal battle. More recently, US-citizen Cody Wilson distributed plans for a fully 3D printed gun. When the government attempted to step in, Wilson sued and won the right to continue his distribution. Such legal battles scare many who believe 3D printing could open a Pandora’s box of unknown consequences we can’t begin to predict.

French EFDD member Joëlle Bergeron has been outspoken about the need for regulations to reign in this new technology. She sees an industry where legal issues will be extremely complex and could get out of control if not clarified by a governing body. Bergeron says:

“We should consider creating specific rules for 3D printing products. As it is such a complex process and so many people are involved, it could be difficult for someone affected to identify the person responsible. If there is an accident, the person responsible could potentially be the creator or vendor of the 3D file, the producer of the printer or the software, the supplier of the materials used or the person creating the object, depending on where the defect originated. At the moment there are no legal precedents regarding civil liability for products that were created with 3D printing. So manufacturers don’t know what to expect.

Therefore it is up to us, who have been elected to the Parliament, to call on the European Commission to take a close look at these legal issues.”

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface on infringement of intellectual property that will likely be a regular point of contention in 3D printing. Does printing an identical copy of a patent-protected object infringe on intellectual property rights? If so, how can this be enforced? Who is liable when a 3D-printed object malfunctions and causes bodily harm? These are all brand new territory for regulators who will be watching the growth of this technology very closely. 

Conclusion

Will we ever live in a world where you can print everything you need at home? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s likely that over time, 3D printing technology will become easier to use for everyone, even those who have limited technical knowledge. Regardless, 3D printing pushes the envelope in creating new and innovative ways to produce objects of all shapes and sizes, and the commercial applications of 3D printing alone will be enough for the industry to be an important part of manufacturing and consumer goods for decades to come.