What would you say is the sleeper technology of the decade? My vote goes to additive manufacturing, aka 3-D printing. 

This technology is coming of age with interested businesses, via their R&D departments, primarily looking to accelerate their product development cycle according to data from The State of 3-D Printing from Sculpteo, but there is so much more to the story. Let's take a look at how this technology is about to change the manufacturing world and beyond.

Changing the World, One Layer at a Time

3-D technology creates physical objects from a three-dimensional digital model, typically by laying down additive thin layers of a material in succession. Sounds mildly interesting but certainly not earth-shattering.

Yet there are telltale signs that this technology is at an exciting tipping point:

  1. Commercial 3-D applications are proliferating across multiple industries.
  2. Governments are following suit and, in some instances, leading the way.
  3. 3-D is permeating pop culture.
  4. Concerns are growing over 3-D impact on the environment.  

If these proof points don’t convince you, then here is the most telling indicator of all that 3-D has arrived … 3-D applications are being combined with blockchain.

Seriously though, 3-D technology has significantly advanced over the last decade to create some uniquely interesting applications. According to the Forbes Technology Council, 3-D printing is changing the world.

“Never before has humanity had the ability to replicate durable objects so easily and quickly.” 

Revolutionizing the Supply Chain

The days of 3-D printers with plastic as the sole material, taking days to create one object, are a memory. Now 3-D printers can produce functional objects from over 200 different materials, including plastics, metals, ceramics, glass, organic cells and even chocolate. And, they can operate fast.

Researchers at the MIT Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity have designed a novel printhead that can melt and extrude material to create complex objects with unprecedented speed, they imagine a world in which objects could be fabricated in minutes and customized to the task at hand — a helical bevel gear in 10 minutes, eyeglass frames in 3.6 minutes.

The vision is a reimagined supply chain, which was predicted in my Minority Report article from 2014. While tongue in cheek, perhaps I wasn’t so far off:

“By 2020, traditional supply chains will no longer exist. Instead all objects will be created at the point of use by 3-D replicators.” — Spacely Sprockets Research

Based on the latest advances, it now seems perfectly plausible that an inventor with an idea for a new product could develop a prototype for testing while on a coffee break, the company could produce the product without being tied down to part-specific tooling and machines that can’t be moved, and a repair person could identify a faulty part and fabricate a new one on site without going to a warehouse to get something out of inventory.

This is serious stuff. 

Defensive readiness depends on the supply chain. The U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center intends to streamline via 3-D printing, working with the University of Dayton Research Institute to figure out how to best use and integrate additive manufacturing into its depots and sustainment processes for aircraft maintenance.

And the medical supply chain is seeking improvements through 3-D as well. As the MIT research shares, it is also possible that a surgeon might soon be able to get a bespoke replacement knee for a patient without leaving the operating theater.

3-D Medical Breakthroughs

When the first patents for 3-D printing technology were issued in the late '80s and early '90s, medicine was one of the first industries to take on the technology, and now has matured to create some amazing breakthroughs over the past few years.

A recent interview with Dr. Beth Ripley on advancing 3-D in healthcare highlights the advances in 3-D that enable production of model kidneys to inform pre-surgical planning, and specialized foot orthotics that help prevent avoidable amputations.

Dr. Ripley — a Veterans Affairs Puget Sound healthcare system radiologist, senior innovations fellow and 3-D printing advisory committee chair — believes the next big step for 3-D printing in medicine now lies with bio-printing to create tissues and organs that can integrate into a patient’s body, with a short-term focus on printing living bone that can grow and merge with the patient’s bone.

Ripley points out though that for this to become a viable technology, the FDA must be assured that it is safe and effective.

Related Article: The Google Ate My Homework: What’s New in EdTech

3-D Downside

A sure sign that 3-D has come of age is the emergence of regulatory safety checks as well as a growing debate over risk, including both environmental and intellectual property (IP) concerns. The Fast Company article 5 of the biggest myths about 3-D printing raises these issues, but offers counter arguments as well.

Learning Opportunities

The article makes the point that people worry that making it easy to produce plastic objects will lead to environmental problems due to the ease of printing new products. The counter argument is that printing massively reduces waste, compared to traditional “subtractive” manufacturing (cutting, drilling, etc.) and the 3-D materials may well be biodegradable.

Inevitably the IP concerns raised revolve around the accessibility of designs and the issues of provenance, forgery and quality. It is not unreasonable to draw parallels to the digital wave that struck the music industry, and the struggle around the idea that IP could be shared online.

The article indicates one solution to the issue of accessible designs might be to use blockchain to keep track of 3-D printed products. And at the same time, shares the challenge that “companies must choose whether customers who want to create, download and print designs should be treated as collaborators or competitors.”

While we will be exploring this challenge holistically and seeking remedies for some time to come, it is both natural and humorous that blockchain is being brought into the conversation. After all, what technology isn’t made better with blockchain?

The 3-D Brady Bunch Moment

To reassure ourselves that 3-D printing is indeed the most spectacular underappreciated tech of our time, just consider the 1970s pop culture favorite TV series "The Brady Bunch."

The series is now being celebrated in the HGTV home improvement show A Very Brady Renovation that chronicles the re-creation of the iconic Brady Bunch TV house. The actors who played the original Brady children and none other than the Property Brothers work together to reconstruct the Brady house sound stage interiors into the actual house we saw for the exterior shots.

One of the challenges was to find or recreate the items that helped to define those interiors.

It turns out that Peter the middle Brady son — that is, Christopher Knight — has become a successful businessman in the computer software industry. So, what to do when the horse statue that sat prominently in the living room is discovered in a Paramount vault with a leg missing? Christopher simply leverages his perhaps unlikely connection (for Peter Brady) into the 3-D printing world to reproduce the missing leg. 

We get to see the 3-D printing process that involved 210 cameras to create the digital model and 28 hours for the print, because “the horse is important, and everyone agrees that no cost is too great to restore it back to its original condition.”

Pop culture moments aside, we now have the technology to 3-D print entire houses. Check out this video to see houses printed in time lapse. The printing using geo polymer concrete takes about 24 hours and costs about $10,000. 

And, perhaps the best part of the 3-D construction tech advance is its ability to make a powerful difference. Vanessa Bates Ramirez article in Singularity Hub recounts the South By Southwest festival last year where construction technologies startup ICON and housing nonprofit New Story unveiled their version of a 3-D printed house.

“Instead of waiting for profit motivation to bring construction advances to the global south, we are fast-tracking innovations like 3-D home printing that can be a powerful tool toward ending homelessness.”  — Alexandria Lafci, New Story

Now that’s a spectacular technology tipping point.

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