Looking for the killer app for 3D printing

One of the constant questions about additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) is whether it is truly a game changer or simply a niche technology. Right now, the discussion seems focused on two questions. The first is the extent to which additive manufacturing can compete with mass production. The second is whether there are enough specialize products to make the technology widespread (beyond the hobbyist). For the first question, many (including proponents of the technology) argue that the technology will be too costly to replace mass production for standard products – such as cars or light bulbs. They see additive manufacturing as making certain parts – such as certain airplane parts that can be made lighter using additive manufacturing. This is obviously related to the second question, where specific (and usually customized) products are made better using additive – such as hip replacements. But to move beyond these specialized and limited uses requires what is often referred to as a “killer app.”
A killer app is a use that makes the technology essential. Personal computers were hobbyist and semi-novelty items until there were business applications. One of the killer apps for the PC was spreadsheets. The first was VisiCalc followed by the ubiquitous Excel. These spreadsheet programs allowed number crunching work activities to be done much faster and more accurate than before. Whereas word processing programs were a step beyond typewriters, spreadsheet programs were light years past calculators. And whereas companies could get away with sticking with typewriters, everyone wanted/needed a PC with a spreadsheet program.
So, what will the killer app for additive manufacturing be? A recent article by Brian Proffitt, “How We’ll 3D-Print The Internet Of Things” may provide part of the answer. The “Internet of Things” is where products, devices, and sensors are all connected to the Internet. This is the practical step beyond the iconic “smart refrigerator.” In order for that smart refrigerator to know that the milk is about to go bad or is just about gone, there needs to be a sensor in the milk carton. Putting a such a sensor in every milk carton using conventional techniques is very (prohibitively?) expensive. But printing a milk carton with a sensor embedded could be a more practical solution.
Ok, smart milk cartons are not a game-changing product like a spreadsheet program. More along the lines of using a home computer to store cooking recipes (an early suggested use). But substitute airplane wings or engines for smart milk cartons. Or any other product where failure could be catastrophic. Then you can see the value of being able to cheaply print an embedded tag.
Tags don’t even need to be sensors. As Proffitt notes, passive tags would allow other products to recognize and deal with other objects: “That might be a vacuum cleaner trying to avoid some toys on the floor, or a factory robot seeking the exact part it needs to deliver to the assembly line. For all kinds of robotics applications, that kind of functionality would be phenomenal.”
Will the Internet of Things be the killer app that launches additive manufacturing in to the “must do” category? We will have to wait and see. But the potential for embedded tags via 3D printing looms large.

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