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Has 3D printing finally made science fiction science reality?

4 minute read

The ability to physically print 3D objects on demand was until recently considered as inconceivable futuristic technology. However 3D models, houses and even body parts are now on the production line.

If you’ve been keeping up with the latest advancements you’ll know that the sky’s the limit when it comes to 3D printing. One of the most remarkable benefits of 3D printing is the ability to produce all kinds of bespoke objects in a variety of materials such as plastic, stainless steel, silver or ceramic, using different processes but all from the same machine! From printers that produce everyday objects such as scale furniture, toys and cars to items that could revolutionise people’s lives, such as prosthetic limbs and even houses – the possibilities really are endless.

Now that more printers are entering the market, what opportunities can they bring to businesses and individuals in every day life? As we move full steam ahead into the exciting world of 3D printing, we ask expert Jon Fidler about this new tech revolution, what it has to offer and what will be the next steps for development.

Jon Fidler is a 3D designer and engineer with over 10 years experience working with 3D printing technology. He has worked within a number of industries to gain a thorough understanding of how 3D Printing is being used within workflows, from fashion to product design. One of his showcase projects was working on an advertising campaign for Nike, where he reproduced models of some of Paris and London’s most famous landmarks with a Nike twist. He also contributed to the London Science Museum’s prolific exhibition ‘3D: Printing The Future’.

What is 3D printing and how does it work?

3D printing is, as the name suggests, a process of manufacturing three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. There are a number of different methods and processes that can be used in 3D printing. The main similarity between them all is that each 3D object is built in a series of layers. The digital file is divided into thousands of very thin layers and the object is then built from the bottom up, one individual layer at a time, until we have a final product. The capability of 3D printers varies hugely. Models range from desktop printers used by high street businesses through to high-specification technology, which is being developed to create astounding objects such as human tissue.

What stage is 3D printing at now?

Broadly speaking, 3D printing is being ever further integrated into a multitude of industries and is even beginning to make its mark in the home. Printers are now becoming available from as little as £500 and in 2013 the UK’s first commercial 3D printer went on sale in Maplin for £699.99. These printers for the home can create relatively basic shapes, which can be produced using 3D software programmes such as Sketchup. In industry, 3D printing is making huge disruptions, cutting lead times and opening up previously unimaginable creative possibilities in areas such as product design and visual merchandising. In the creative sphere, award-winning jewellery designer Rob Elford¹ is pioneering digital fashion design and his unusual 3D jewellery designs have achieved global acclaim.

Where is the future of 3D printing headed?

There is a lot of speculation about where 3D printing can go. There are many opportunities arising and three of the most exciting areas right now include:

1. The medical field

Amazingly, surgical teams are currently using 3D printing technology to recreate parts of the human body, from skin to bones and even organs. This is known as bioprinting. Back in March of this year, a survivor of a serious motorbike accident from Wales recently underwent an operation to reconstruct his face using 3D printed implants, providing life-changing results². Although there is still much work and research to be done in this area, there has already been significant progress made within the medical field: by the end of this year there are plans to market and launch the first 3D liver tissue to pharmaceutical companies and research labs³.

2. Aerospace

3D printing is moving further into the field of flight, producing vital parts for aircrafts and assisting with technological advancements. NASA has also been exploring the role 3D printing has in space missions and within their wider research. One futuristic idea that is being discussed is the possibility of creating an adaptable aeronautical taskforce – in other words 3D printable unmanned drones that could be manufactured to provide appropriate solutions and tools at a moment’s notice and repair damaged parts on aircrafts⁴.

3. Architecture

The advantages for 3D printers in the building industry are becoming more widely discussed: construction is quicker, there are lower labour costs and there is less waste produced. In fact, 3D printed houses are being built right now. Amazingly a construction company in China recently printed ten life-size houses in just one day⁵!

What new opportunities are there for individuals and businesses in the UK?

3D printing could potentially benefit any industry that uses any level of 3D design within its workflow. As a communication tool, it can be a very realistic and highly engaging way to help present an idea to a client, colleague or customer, particularly in areas such as product design, architecture or interior design. In product development, we are able to not only have a working prototype designed and created in a fraction of the time taken by traditional methods but also, we can then quickly amend the digital file and reproduce an updated version. As for aesthetics, the intricate detail that 3D printing can achieve gives people the ability to create highly bespoke sculptures, artwork and installations quickly and often at a fraction of the cost of conventional methods.

The future of 3D printing is far from defined. By 2040 we may be able to witness the production of self-healing drones and with the astonishing advances in bio-printing, (creating human tissue) this incredible technology will no doubt make us question what is – and what is no longer – science fiction.

(1) Source: http://www.robelford.co.uk

(2) Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-26534408

(3) Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/10629531/The-next-step-3D-printing-the-human-body.html

(4) Source: http://3dprintingindustry.com/2014/07/08/bae-3d-print-transforming-self-healing-drones-2040

(5) Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-27156775

A collection of articles written collaboratively by members of the UK Domain Team.

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