Many industries are using 3D printing technology for testing purposes and some even use it to create real products for their customers. During the last couple of years 3D printing has taken huge leaps, technology wise, and is now a viable solution for rapid prototyping. At least here in Finland there has been quite a big hype around 3D printing and many schools from elementary level to universities have bought their own 3D printer. Of course in elementary schools printers are just for introduction to the technology while universities conduct real science with them.
Is 3D printing for everybody?
It may sound easy. You order your own 3D printer from an online store and suddenly you are able to print…but what do you print? Problems arise when you have a 3D printer and you have an idea what would you like to print but you have no idea how to make a model for the printer. 3D modelling and design is after all a skill that is not commonly known. People who can create professional 3D models are usually educated for it and have years of experience. So it seems that the prediction of having 3D printer in every home forming a huge amount of small factories anytime soon will not happen. Personally I wouldn’t take a noisy, plastic melting device to my home that runs up to 12 hours per day just to print a small flower vase. It is true that you could for example print a working wrench with a 3D printer, but the costs for such a tool can be tens of euros. So at the moment it is easier, faster and cheaper to go and buy it from a store.
What will the future bring?
3D printing is absolutely a great way to do rapid prototyping. Unique pieces of machinery, custom tools and special equipment for various industries is the key market for 3D printing at the moment. From medical and dental products to space vessel parts, 3D printing can be a solution in many cases. In the future, instead of buying drugs, you might be able to buy the blueprint of the drug and required “ink” for it so you can print drugs at home and this way all drugs can be custom made for every patient. So no “take 800mg of this and then be happy”. Insted it can be “take 652mg of this and 67mg of that, here is the blueprint” and then you 3D print those and get more effective medication. Predictions are that 3D printing will grow from around $5 billion up to a $20 billion industry in the next 5 years. This means the technology will improve, more players will enter the market and the competition will be tougher which in the end will be beneficial for everyone.
Is 4D printing the next thing?
Many say that 3D printing has come and gone already. With 3D printing you can manufacture objects that have been impossible to manufacture with traditional methods. That is the key reason 3D printing is evolving into 4D printing. With 4D printing, the printed object will have some intelligence put into it thus giving some additional value for the user. Batteries, LEDs, OLED screens, solar panels etc. have been printed but things get interesting when we put some real action into the printed sheet. Imagine a situation where you have a plain sheet of white paper in front of you and then you give it some energy. Let it be sun, water, you shake the paper or you put it inside an induction field and suddenly the paper starts to fold itself into an origami. And you didn’t need to touch it at all. This kind of technology is already here and these things can be done in laboratory environments. However it will take time until mass production is possible and everybody has their own shakable origami. But it’s coming and if someone says that traditional print industry is going to die because of digitalization, I would say that the printing industry will adapt to the situation and will rise to be stronger than ever.