It can already create small car and aeroplane parts, titanium hip joints, and scale models of technology for large energy projects. In years to come it may even print the homes we live in and potentially living tissue to create new organs. The 3D printing revolution is under way: changing approaches to design and the way products are made.
But what is 3D printing? Think of it like a home or office printer, which uses quick-setting liquid, metal powder or resin for ink. When a designer with a computer hits the print button, software sends the virtual object to the printer, broken down into hundreds or thousands of horizontal slices. A moving print head dispenses the ink layer-upon-layer to build a real object.
While small-scale desktop 3D printing for homes is on the rise, it is within industry that the potential of 3D printing is most exciting. Traditionally, designing components for industry meant investing vast sums of money for small prototypes that rarely offered any scope for modification. 3D printing changes that. Engineers believe they could eventually produce a near-limitless range of new objects, or reproduce old ones no longer available for a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing methods.
“3D printing is changing the prototyping and visualisation processes of how we make things,” says Shawn Darrah, Shell Innovations Adviser. “It means complicated designs can be produced cheaper, faster with minimal design flaws and a whole lot less waste.”
Little wonder some see 3D printing as the next industrial revolution. Global consultancy AT Kearney forecasts the market to be worth $17 billion by 2020 – up from $7bn today. But there are still limitations. “Its current speed and the range of materials available are the big challenges that industry is trying to solve,” explains Dr Simon Leigh, an assistant professor at the School of Engineering at Warwick University, UK.
So what is the future for 3D printing? Here we look at some promising uses.