3D Printing – A Revolutionary Technology

On April 25, 2013 the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) hosted a debate on what many call miracle technology: 3D printing. Participating experts attempted to demystify this much-talked-about but little understood technology.

According to a new finding by Lux Research, the current 3D market is poised to swell to $8.4 billion from $777 million in sales in 2012.  And last month, Forbes.com reported that Wohlers Associates predicts that the 3D printing market will reach $3.1 billion by 2016 and will increase to $5.2 billion by 2020.

What is 3D Printing?

3D Printers create a 3D object of any shape from a digital model by building up successive layers of material. 3D printing is a low-cost and simplified version of rapid prototyping machines used largely in the automotive and aeronautical industries. Applications for 3D printing are manifold and are making headway into the medical, architecture, fashion, manufacturing and food production arenas.

3D printers, for example, in orthopedics are used to create custom implants for patients needing hip replacements. The use of 3D printing in commercial manufacturing (where it is more often referred to as additive manufacturing) is booming and there is already a clear shift from using 3D printing to create prototypes to actual volume production.

Technology Behind 3D Printing

The technology has a mystique appeal perhaps because its is not as of yet mainstream. Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Fused Deposition Modeling and Stereo Lithography are the commonly used technologies for 3D Printing. Each approach differs in how layers are added to create the object and in the types of materials that can be used. SLS is a popular technique that creates objects by building layers from heated, powdered plastic fused with a CO2 laser. This process allows for more complex shapes and a stronger finished product.

There is still a limited selection of materials and each process is only able to make use of one kind of plastic or metal.  Also, the time required for printing can be long, and in many cases it can take hours or even days to print one object. The biggest drawback, though, may be the high cost of professional 3D software and 3D model design.

New Regulatory Bodies Needed

As with any budding technology, more needs to be done to ensure quality control and to define and adhere to regulatory standards. Issues around Intellectual Property (IP) and illegal copying will for certain require quick solutions, and the FDA will surely have a lot to say about 3D printing for medical applications.

Expect a Technological Revolution

In the coming decades 3D Printing will be easily available and accessible, and not solely limited to commercial use. Expect revolutionary techniques in food production, for example, as printing chocolate is already possible and once textured vegetable-based protein become a reality, we will see an array of creative applications in food production.

The possibilities are endless, and the miracle technology will enable us to create in new ways that were not possible decades ago. The unanimous verdict is that 3D printing is here to stay.

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