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.

3D printing could change the cars we drive 

Technology company Local Motors from Arizona, USA, aims to launch the first commercially available car made largely with 3D-printed parts in 2017. The company says it will use the technique to manufacture 75% of components in its LM3D series of vehicles – from the body panels to chassis – and hopes to increase this to 90%.

Local Motors aims to produce vehicles to meet local needs, which it would make using a global network of factories, each smaller than a football pitch. The company runs a global online co-creation community, with members ranging from hobbyists to professionals contributing design ideas, and engineering and manufacturing experience. Read more about Local Motors.

Shell is also testing the 3D printing of car parts. It is building an energy-efficient concept car for cities, under the name Project M, which contains several plastic components produced with a 3D printer. The technology allowed the car designers to avoid tooling – the conventional, but time-consuming, process of building metal moulds to make components. “As technology develops and the cost comes down, 3D printing will become more and more viable for mass production,” says Matt Brewerton, a senior design engineer for Project M. Read more about the project.

It could change construction

Contour Crafting is a prototype 3D printing technique using a special quick-setting concrete. Its creators at the University of Southern California in the USA say it might be able to print an entire house in as little as 24 hours, and even print colonies on Mars.

Invented by Professor Behrokh Khoshnevis, Contour Crafting uses a computer-controlled gantry which travels along rails laid either side of the construction site, following an architect’s plans. A robot arm suspended from the gantry moves from side to side, dispensing concrete from a nozzle. Exterior and interior walls can be built in a continuous process, layer by layer, including conduits for piping, wiring and air conditioning.

“We are advancing the technology in multiple directions including space applications, building applications on earth, and infrastructure elements such as towers and bridges,” says Professor Khoshnevis. He plans to print his first building, a house with more than 90 square metres of living space, in 2017.

Their technique might one day offer a way to build facilities ranging from labs to living quarters for explorers to the moon or Mars, using rocks and other materials available far from earth. Read more about Contour Crafting and watch a prototype Contour Crafting machine in operation.

It could change the energy industry

Shell is using 3D printing technology to make the design and construction of equipment used in oil and gas production faster and more efficient. Printing technology allows the company to create accurate scale prototypes in material like plastic, which it tests and uses to improve designs and construction process.

“Digital design and 3D printing offer scope to build more efficient prototypes, which we transform into products in their full physical form,” says Shawn Darrah, Shell Innovations Adviser. His team worked in partnership with a Shell project team to develop a system connecting a huge vessel to oil and gas wells in seas nearly three kilometres deep.

It could change structural engineering

Dutch design company MX3D is preparing to print an entire bridge in steel in Amsterdam, using an industrial welding robot which they have developed. Their aim is to programme the robot to move across the bridge as it prints the structure, unlike traditional 3D printing that operates within a frame like a box.

“By printing with industrial robots, we are no longer limited to a square box in which everything happens,” says Tim Geurtjens, chief technology officer at MX3D. The company plans to print the bridge in its workshop in the north of Amsterdam by 2017. “Digital manufacturing is still a relatively unexplored territory, but will lead to a huge aesthetic and industrial freedom.” Learn more about their plans.

Story by Kunal Dutta