The ability to be stunned by technology is limited in a world in which it is possible to travel from New York City to Spain in less than half a day and get information about anything instantaneously delivered to a device the size of a pack of cigarettes.
3D printing, however, elicits awe even today. How, after all, can an object in one place be replicated in another? The answer, of course, removes much of the mystery. The concept is simply that a detailed 3D image of the object is transmitted to a device that uses the same materials as the original to create a copy.
Once that basic concept is understood, it is a good idea to focus on some of the details of how these devices work and the differences between approaches. That’s precisely what Richard Baguley does at Tom’s Guide. He looks at how 3D printers work, the various technical approaches to implementing the basic concepts, what features and specs to look for, and the various types of modeling software used to provide the instructions for the construction of the copy. If one thing is amazing—besides, of course, the ability to replicate a coffee mug 3,000 miles away—it is that a 3D printer can be bought for as little as $300.
Of course, many serious societal issues relate to 3D printing, beginning with the ability—now or in the future—to replicate illegal and/or dangerous objects (e.g., explosives and firearms) and lifesaving objects (e.g., food and skin). As usual, the technology is neutral. It’s as good or bad as the humans pressing the buttons.
How to manage this awesome technology is a debate for another day and, perhaps, another site. What is important in the more focused context of IT Business Edge is 3D printing’s impact on business.
The Deal Pipeline has an interesting article that makes several points about the maturation of the sector. It is a bit surprising to learn that 3D printing—which is also known as “additive manufacturing,” according to the story—is actually a quarter century old. The story paints a picture of a sector that can aid manufacturers and other businesses in many areas, but one that is immature and still being driven by mergers and acquisitions.
General Electric may be using 3D printing a bit more than most companies. For that reason, it’s worth taking a look at what it is doing to see what is possible—and likely on the horizon. Investors.com’s Gillian Rich reports that GE manufacturing uses 3D printing in some form today. It is employed in such things as making medical devices, jet engine parts and washing machine part prototypes, the story says. That percentage is expected to rise from less than 10 percent today to 20 percent to 25 percent in 10 years and up to half or more of some of its manufacturing processes in 20 years. GE’s experience is likely to push other manufacturers into using the technology:
The company's push into 3D printing could pave the way for other large-scale manufacturers to embrace the technology. GE's use of 3D printers in jet engines, for example, could serve as a catalyst for rivals United Technologies (UTX), which owns Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce.
It is not difficult to think of the potential advantages of 3D printing to businesses. ZDNet’s Larry Dignan mentioned several. One in particular—printing of replacement parts instead of manufacturing and mailing them—is quite interesting, but he points to the difficulties the new technology raises. One of the most promising areas of the nascent technology is the printing of human tissue. Bioprinting, he points out, raises legal and intellectual property issues with which organizations must deal. Indeed, intellectual property and theft will be a huge challenge to business’s use of—and coexistence with—3D printing.
3D printing is a surprising technology: It is surprising that it is possible to do it, it is surprising that it has been around so long, and it is surprising that consumer-grade devices are so inexpensive. It is definitely a category to watch.