3D printing and the new manufacturing

One of the hallmarks of a major innovation is that it doesn’t just let you do the same-old things better, it helps you do things differently. Cable television was first developed to help rural areas get a better broadcast signal by using a community antenna located in a better stop that on the top of one’s own house. It blossomed into a new media revolution. Hydraulic diggers took a long time replacing steam shovels, but really took off when they were used to create smaller specialized earth moving tools such as backhoes and trench diggers (for use in areas that large steam shovels couldn’t get to). When electric motors replaced centralized steam or water powered belt systems to run machinery, factories could be redesigned along the lines of the production flow not the power source — thereby greatly increasing productivity.
Now we are beginning to see the same phenomena with 3D printing. In numerous earlier postings, I’ve talked about how 3D printing (or “additive manufacturing”) is becoming a replacement for customized fabrication. For example, one of the growing uses appears to be in the creation of customized medical devices, like hip replacements. Now users are finding that additive manufacturing allows for the fabrication of items that could not be made before. A story last month in The Economist (“The shape of things to come“) describes some of 3D printing products that would be difficult or impossible to make using existing techniques. One example concerns artificial hips that not only better follow the curves of the patient’s bones but also reproduce the lattice-like internal structure of natural bone making the implant lighter and stronger. Another is a heat exchanger in an optimum shape that resembles a fish gill. Yet another are objects that are stiff on one end and flexible or soft on the other. Each of these are not simply substitutes for existing manufacturing processes, but processes that allow for a new type of product.
As the cost of 3D printers come down and more users become familiar with their capabilities, expect to see a lot more of these never-before-seen creations. Just as precision machining made possible manufacturing revolution of mass production using interchangeable parts, additive manufacturing may spark a new manufacturing revolution with opportunities and consequences that we can barely conceive of today.

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