Contributors to this programme:
Co-Founder Bespoke Innovations
Chief Technology Officer, Within Technologies
Dr Neil Hopkinson
Senior Lecturer/Senior Enterprise Fellow
Rapid Manufacturing Research Group, Loughborough University
3d printed component at EADS
3d printing in process
printing building components
3d printer in Civil and Building Engineering Department Loughborough University
Peter Day's Webcomment:
About this programme by Peter Day
It happens once – maybe - in a reporting lifetime: an encounter with something that is really going to change the world. But I think it may have happened three times to me in the past 36 years of covering business for the BBC.
First there was the arrival of the computer, whose fundamental impact on business - and society as a whole - was not apparent until the 1980s. Following that - and powered by it - was the rise of the Internet; we are still grappling with its implications.
Both of those had been around for several decades before their size and impact became generally apparent: just how disruptive they were.
In a similar way three dimensional printing has been around for about 30 years.
For a long time it went by the term "rapid prototyping". It used expensive machines to create 3D representations of components without the need for expensive and time consuming mould making or lathe work.
Rapid prototyping enabled (for example) giant car companies to use 3D scanners and remote copiers to send accurate representations of car parts round the world overnight.
Rapid prototyping is technically interesting, but hardly exciting.
But the way that it is now developing is very exciting indeed ... and very disruptive to the old ways of thinking about (and doing) manufacturing.
Scott Summit woke me up to what 3D printing can do. We were in his lofty warehouse office in San Francisco, in a rejuvenated part of the city crammed with interesting high tech start-ups.
Scott Summit is a long-established Californian designer, now cofounder of a company called Bespoke Innovations that is using the techniques of 3D printing to fabricate individualised ("bespoke") prosthetic limbs.
His cofounder is a practising orthopaedic surgeon, and it was when the two met that the idea for a company using newly possible techniques and materials was born.
Bespoke's office is full of highly ingenious demonstrations of what 3D printing can do; demonstrators love complex plastic latticework constructions that are both flexible and strong. And there were also a few bespoke legs and other body parts.
But the thing that jumped to my attention was much less complex than these: it was a bolt "printed" in its own hole.
I unscrewed it … and pondered the profound implications of this. 3D printing is going to change the way we make many, many things, not just artificial limbs.
But first a bit of explanation:
Three dimensional printing is an accurate description that rather undersells the process.
It's now become known as "additive manufacturing", to contrast it with the subtractive manufacturing we've had for the past 200 years, when men and machines chipped away at blocks of metal in order to fashion components, clamped metal sheets in huge presses to shape car bodies, or poured liquid metal or plastics into moulds where they took on the shape of an object, the same shape over and over again.
Three dimensional printers lay down microscopic layers of powder one after the other, and parts of each layer are then fused by a swift-moving laser, controlled by a computer drawing of the desired object. The result is an emerging 3D component, often of some complexity.
When the fusing process (called sintering by some people) is finished, you blow or knock off the unfused powder, and a highly complex form remains, minutely realised.
The bolt hole I saw in San Francisco had been drawn on a computer, and then created on the additive fabricator, a tiny bit larger all round than the bolt which was created, in place, at the same time.
Some excited proponents of additive manufacturing say: "If you can draw it, you can print it", but that is getting rather carried away.
Somethings are un-"printable", at least at the moment.
There are fusible powders for plastics and metals and the range of materials is increasing rapidly. But you can’t print glass yet, nor fabricate plastic foam nor aluminium foil, for example.
Researchers are still working on the printability of components made of different materials. But even now, the possibilities are evident. Because you are able to print joints that move, and springs that spring, components made in this way may combine three, four or more parts that were made separately in the past but can now be fabricated in one take.
Additive manufacturing is ideal for the aircraft industry, with a need for small numbers of precision parts often made for very individual needs.
Formula One cars are using 3D printed parts made on demand: another industry where strength and lightness is a particular imperative.
It seems that we have now reached a breakthrough point in the adoption of what has hitherto been mainly a tool for designers rather than manufacturers.
The University of Loughborough in the English Midlands is one of the global pioneers in applying 3D fabrication to manufacturing, and there I sat on a garden bench that had been "printed" in the Civil and Building Engineering department lab, made out of concrete squirted out of a nozzle in much the same way that an ink jet printer squirts ink on to two dimensional surfaces.
Much bigger than that was the three-storey rig at the same lab where they are refining ways of "printing" buildings, again using concrete built up in squirted layers.
Building sites have not changed much since the Romans, who also used concrete. But deliver a giant additive manufacturing rig to a site, and houses can be fabricated in place, direct from the architects computer drawings … after those same drawings have also generated a tiny model of the finished building to satisfy the planning authorities.
At Loughborough, they are trying to win the attention of young architects to embrace the potential of manufacturing homes like this, but it is a process which needs bold champions unencumbered by traditional ideas about how you build or manufacture things.
It is at this stage that thinking about the possibilities of 3D printing gets really revolutionary, and where (also) you begin to see the snags that may block or slow down its adoption in a revolutionary way.
It challenges much of the way things have been made for 100 years of mass production, upon which the modern structure of the corporation has been erected.
It enables customers to design their own things and (at least in theory) have them made at local print shops close at home, rather than have them delivered from factories half way round the world.
Manufacturing has always needed large amounts of capital for its plants, factories and warehouses. Much less investment may be needed in the future.
Small manufacturing businesses may be able to operate from scratch on a global scale. Designers and engineers will be at the heart of these companies, as ideas are spirited off the computer screen drawing board and into production.
Mass brands will atrophy because people will be able to be supplied with individual products, made just for them. Distribution will change shape, as many things will no longer have to be shipped round the world.
Ideas, not capital, may become the prime mover of business activity.
And the snags? Well making it happen needs huge changes in the way businesses work and the way things are designed and prepared for production.
Most of the people who have to make the changes were brought up in the old ways of doing things ... the subtractive world.
Mass production is at the heart of much of the way business people think about what they are doing.
They will find it difficult not to look at additive manufacturing through the traditional business perspective.
In theory 3D printing is very disruptive indeed. In practice , it may take decades to arrive. But 500 years ago printing utterly changed the world. Something similar might be about to happen again.
Insights into the business world with Peter Day - featuring content from his Radio 4 In Business…