The 3D printing revolution: head to head - huge potential or exaggerated abilities?

Materials World magazine
2 Jan 2014

Is additive manufacturing really set to change our lives in the coming years? Or has the potential of this technology been overblown? Rachel Lawler hears both sides of the argument.


Professor Mark Miodownik FIMMM, Director, Institute of Making, UCL, London, UK
Last year Professor Seifalian and his team at UCL used 3D printing and a bioreactor to make a replacement windpipe that was successfully implanted into a patient. This is what 3D printing is perfectly suited to – taking digital information, in this case a CT scan, and turning it into an implant exactly tailored to a patient. The technology has fewer exotic applications in hospitals, too. Orthopaedic surgeons use 3D printing every day to create saw and drill guides for surgery. These help guide cutting and drill angles during operations, increasing speed and improving patient recovery. No one predicted this application when 3D printing arrived in hospitals, but it shows how this technology can open up unexpected creative and economic potential.

This pattern seems to be repeating itself in other areas of materials engineering. The technology is introduced to produce custom items, but then curious people from other departments in an organisation get their hands on the technology and find new uses. For example, the automotive industry has long been using 3D printing to make dashboards and instrumentation. Now a different application, which has nothing to do with customisation, is being explored – why stockpile spare parts for different models of car when you can store the information digitally and print them only when required? The cost savings on warehousing are potentially huge, let alone on inventory management. It also means that cars could be kept on the road for longer. Herein lies a seed of revolution, this technology has the possibility to change our culture of consumption because we can design for repair.

Of course, the digital information doesn't need to come from commercial manufacturers. Anyone can share their digital information freely – take a look at the Thingiverse website if you want an insight into this creative explosion. Already metals, ceramics, plastics, gels and electronics can be printed in a myriad of ways, and it is still early days for this new manufacturing technology. Although high-end 3D printers are expensive, there are many that cost just a few hundred pounds. This is cheap enough to allow pretty much anyone to own a 3D printer and share his or her ingenuity with the world. Open source 3D prosthetics is a good example of the power of this new social manufacturing paradigm. Thousands of people in the developing world and war zones who cannot afford commercial prosthetics are printing their own.

This is ultimately why 3D printing is important. It changes the economics and environmental impact of repair, whether it be of a person or a machine.


Craig Vickers, Rapid Prototyping Operations Director, ARRK Europe Ltd, UK
It is described as a brand new phenomenon – and in places, it is. Certainly, the technology and material are developing and emerging at a rapid rate. Given the relatively low entry-level costs for some of these machines, 3D printing has become more accessible to the general public than ever before.

In the last 10 years or so, we have seen the terms used to describe this technology change from rapid prototyping to time compression to additive manufacturing – those of us in the industry didn’t even realise we’d become different sectors. In reality, these changes have been led by marketing rather than major process or technology, and the old formula of rebranding to reinvigorate interest or enthusiasm has certainly played a part. Although it is true to say that 3D printing, while definitely being heavily marketed, is also, in some places, very different from these more established technologies.

What is perhaps less obvious is the fact that for many years rapid prototyping companies have been driving hard to combine their offering with production processes to enable low-volume manufacturing – and even mass production – to be considered at the prototyping stage. This is a vital part in how rapid prototyping companies will continue to evolve – especially as major equipment manufacturers, at the very least, look to reduce their number of suppliers. We are seeing a major upsurge in the number of parts being sourced and these parts are expected to perform in increasingly demanding environments. The need for 20 sets of full car interiors, all aesthetically matched to production standards, cannot be easily achieved using a 3D printing process, at least not yet. This is certainly not only true for the automotive sector, but holds for a whole range of diverse industries and customers.

I have been asked many times in the last two years: How much of a threat is the emergence of 3D printing to rapid prototyping companies? My answer is almost always the same. If we do nothing, then the threat is great. However, we must remember that a large proportion of what we do is actually in associated or downstream processes, where we make use of rapid prototyping or 3D printer technology to reduce timescales and costs.

However, we must be fully aware of what is out there and what is emerging, and constantly evaluate when we should invest to enhance our offering and range of solutions. It is important that we combine the balance between process and material development with these new technologies to allow us to continue to offer what we always have – a solution and not just a part or a model.

What do you think?
Which of the two speakers convinced you most? Which other important issues should be addressed? Email or tweet us your comments or @materialsworld