Many people think that we might be on the verge of a technological advance that will have as much impact on the world as the industrial revolution did.
This is a very big claim, but when you think of how quickly the internet has spread around the world and how much it has impacted on our daily lives, it doesn’t take much to see that something could make the next big leap quite fast.
So what would this be? The industrial revolution basically meant that the mass production of goods became possible, creating a consumer society based on a capitalist approach to ‘owning the means of production’.
Today, this is still the way we in the developed world live our lives. If there are goods or products we need there will probably be a factory making them somewhere. Perhaps the next real revolution could be the fact that we could soon be making ‘things’ in our own homes via 3D printers.
3D printing – what is it?
Put simply, 3D printing is a process of creating three-dimensional products through the printing process. Layers of material are laid down in different shapes to ‘build’ the physical object with digital technology usually used to achieve this.
There are many machines already being used for this purpose, although right now they are priced too high to enter the mainstream market which means commercial availability is not an option at present.
The idea is based on the process of ‘Additive Manufacturing’ which means a shape is built up to a finished three-dimensional solid object by adding successive layers of material of different types to one another. This is different from traditional machining techniques as they usually work on the basis of the removal of material by methods such as cutting or drilling.
The first working 3D printer was created in 1984 by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems Corp and the market for 3D printers and services was worth $2.2 billion (just shy of £1.4 billion) worldwide in 2012; up 29% from 2011.
At the moment it is the making of prototypes for the worlds of architecture, construction industrial design and engineering disciplines that 3D printing is mainly used for. However, almost any area that you can think of could benefit from the use of the process. Where it may have an almost unimaginable impact is when machines become cheap enough for domestic use and consumers can avoid costs associated with purchasing common household objects by simply making them at home.
In order to use a 3D printer you need to make a detailed image of the product using a specialised application such as Solidworks 3D CAD Design software. This builds up the digitised data of the dimensions and specifications and allows the device to create the object to exact specifications.
For evidence of the potential popularity of the technology you need only look at the names already getting on board with the idea. A report in the BBC claims that USA’s NASA are planning on launching a 3D printer into space in 2014 so that spare parts and tools can be made in areas of zero gravity, thus helping astronauts with their general maintenance.
As the first 3D printer to be used in space, the success of the technology is somewhat unknown but the move is hoped to reduce costs of future space missions by providing a viable way to generate parts and tools at the scene rather than transporting them there from Earth. This could have numerous benefits with the famous Apollo 13 mission highlighted as a prime example.
In this mission, astronauts had to make a home-made carbon dioxide filter to survive – something which could have been produced in minutes with a 3D printer.
The organisation is also looking at the possibility of 3D printing small satellites that could be launched from the International Space Station to transmit data back to receptors on Earth. Currently, 3D printers use polymer materials to build solid products but laser-melted titanium and nickel-chromium powders have begun to be used to help create stronger products which could make this a reality.