3D printing is about to change the world, the news app on my tablet is telling me (as has Brian Micklethwait, for some time). Although the technique has been used for years for making 3D mock-ups, advances in materials mean that it is increasingly used to make the real thing.
But for years, the plastics and the metals that were used were just not robust enough to create a prototype that you could be proud of. They resembled paraffin waxes. They could create the parts, but those parts tended to be flimsy. Because the end product didn’t have structural integrity, the technology was really just for engineers who were creating a product in CAD and needed to see what it looked like in real life.
The revolution took place when companies like 3D Systems started designing radically new materials. (See the article Substance Before Form for more.)
They came up with nanocomposites, different blends of plastics, and different blends of powdered metals. They were then able to create a part that, if you held it in your hand, you’d think it was steel. You can throw it down on the ground against cement, and it looks and acts just like steel.
It’s impressive how the industry has graduated from flimsy, waxy plastics to very, very robust materials that can literally be used as a machine part, rather than just a prototype of a part.
The industry graduated from just being about rapid prototyping—i.e., this is going to be something that’s only an R & D function—to becoming a manufacturing strategy. We can make parts through this method, and the parts can go on the car, and the parts can go on the plane. They can also go in the human body, in the case of dental or medical applications.
Prosthetics is just the sort of area where one would expect 3D printing to take off first, because of the high degree of personalisation needed. Now it seems people are taking it seriously as a mass manufacturing method and investing their money in this direction. I expect this degree of personalisation will spread to other things, where it is merely desired.