The falling cost of 3D printers combined with the ability to share plans online has lowered the barriers of industrial design. What used to require machines, tools, casting equipment and skilled technicians can now be accomplished by anyone with a laptop.
In 2011, artist and tinkerer Ivan Owen designed a mechanical hand for a costume and posted a video of the device to YouTube. When a South African carpenter who had lost his fingers contacted him for help, a movement was born.
Next, Owen created a design for a 3D-printed prosthetic hand and published the plans online. John Schull, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, saw Owen’s videos about the artificial hands and created a hub to connect people who owned 3D printers with people – many of them children – who needed one. The resulting organization, Enabling the Future, has so far facilitated the delivery of more than 1,800 hands, most of them to children whose families couldn’t afford a medical prosthesis.
3D Printing at Work
The additive manufacturing process, most commonly known as 3D printing, is replacing older methods such as hand modeling and casting to enable rapid prototyping and the creation of one-off parts in a variety of industries. Companies are discovering how 3D printing can speed up product development, reduce costs and eliminate technical barriers. These are just a few its revolutionary developments:
- Bioprinting: Even tissue and organs can be manufactured additively. University researchers are experimenting with printing animal and human stem cells into structures that could be used to replace damaged veins, bone, cartilage or muscle. At Wake Forest, researchers implanted the printed tissue into animals; the new tissue became fully functional.
- Industrial parts: Aerospace and automotive manufacturers have already adopted additive manufacturing in a big way. It’s especially useful for creating one-off parts or those with small production runs. GE’s Leap jet engine includes a 3D printed fuel nozzle. Formerly, the nozzles were made of 20 parts machined together.
- Historic recreation: Because 3D objects can be created from CAD or other computer software, the process is applicable to architectural elements – or even to recreating entire structures. In Iran, the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization hopes to use the technology to create exact replicas of historic sites that have been damaged or destroyed.
- Computer animation: For stop-motion animation movies, the process can speed up the creation of the many different facial expressions needed. In director Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, 3D printing allowed a greater level of detail while lowering expenses for the indie film. It allowed Laika Studios to create an astonishing 48 million different expressions for the characters in Kubo and the Two Strings.
- Printed food: A restaurant set to open in the UK will serve only printed food. Food Ink seems more likely designed to promote a niche line of printers that extrude a variety of edible pastes. You can also buy machines to print chocolate, cookies, hamburgers and pizza.
A Growing Need for 3D Engineers
With all the different sectors taking advantage of the speed and affordability of 3D printing, business is booming. A report from Research and Markets forecasts that the global 3D printing materials market will grow at a healthy rate of more than 25 percent annually from 2016 to 2020.
Wanted Analytics, a software firm that tracks hiring trends, found that the number of job ads asking for additive manufacturing skills increased by 1,834 percent between 2010 and 2014, according to the BBC. Industrial and mechanical engineers, software developers, commercial and industrial designers, and marketing managers are all in demand in this sector.
In fact, the use of industrial 3D printing has been slowed by a lack of expertise that extends from managers to engineers and technicians, according to CNBC. To fill the skills gap in Ohio, the state granted Kent State University money to outfit its lab with an industrial 3D printer for students to use.
The process of taking 3D printing to industrial heights requires a new approach to design and manufacturing. Its potential to revolutionize technology and provide exciting new jobs in the tech sector is almost unlimited.