Additive manufacturing in every consumer household
By: Bryce Hirschfeld
Aug. 13, 2020
The late Harvard business academic, Clayton Christensen, insisted that all technology companies follow similar patterns. When measured correctly and often, data from tech companies of the past can be dissected and analyzed to reveal patterns, stories, setbacks, and breakthroughs that can inform young industries of what is to come. The rise of the personal computer (PC) is a story that has already guided many industries to dominate a consumer’s everyday life, the smartphone, social media, and consumer goods industries to name a few. Lessons from the PC narrative are not yet exhausted, however, as additive manufacturing (AM) and its 3D printing cousin become the latest industries to push into the mainstream and strive to become a part of our everyday lives.
The AM and the PC industries share historical commonalities. In their infancy, both computers and 3D printers were only used in niche industries such as the military, academia, and business applications. Both machines were expensive, performed only specialized functions, and required a host of experts to utilize efficiently. These barriers, while not impossible to overcome, are formidable, and it was not until the PC industry, famously pioneered by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, broke through these barriers that it was able to appeal to the average consumer, a task that the AM industry has yet to achieve in full. This begs the question, how the AM industry learn from these breakthroughs to push AM into the households of the average consumer?
Simplify the User Experience
First, PC companies simplified the user experience of their products in a way that eliminated expertise requirements. Frankly, if a user cannot figure out how to use your product easily, it is unlikely they will adopt it. Early PCs required knowledge of Batch Language or command line script to run a program or perform a function, driving its usership towards organizations that could afford the cost of expertise development (e.g. military, businesses, and hobbyists). With the advent of the graphical user interface and mouse, this expertise requirement was lifted and most anyone could learn to use a computer.
Presently, AM requires a non-trivial level of operational expertise at each step. To produce an object, a 3D model must be first be generated using special computer aided design (CAD) software, the printer’s toolpath or slicing algorithm must be calculated using another specialized software, and the printing process must be monitored at regular intervals to ensure successful production. In recent years, the hobbyist community has removed the need to understand CAD by creating Thingiverse and GrabCad, vast libraries of 3D models of common objects than anyone can download with a click of a button. Further, recent improvements in 3D scanning technology enable users to obtain 3D models of objects in their immediate environment. While many 3D printing companies have improved the user experience of their slicing software, there are more technological hurdles to overcome to make the process press and play. Nevertheless, significant strides are being made in the AM industry to follow the lead of the PC story and simplify the user experience.
Expand the Applications
Yet, PC companies found out the hard way that merely simplifying the user experience often fails to attract large adoption; An improved user experience must be coupled with broad applicability. The first word processor applications allowed users to draft, edit, and print documents without wasting paper or time. This has since transformed into an entire Microsoft Office Suite that allows businesses to streamline their operations and the everyday person to organize their life. Early computer games like Snake and Pac Man have evolved into the intricately strategic, artistic masterpieces of today. Through expanded applicability, PCs made the lives of the average person quicker, more organized, more creative, more fun, and more connected than ever before, firmly rooting itself as a vital component of our everyday life.
Expanding the applications
Once a computer was simple enough for the average consumer to use the product, it was imperative that applications were generated for the everyday user. It’s hard to remember that computers didn’t always come equipped with a video player, games, word, excel, and PowerPoint. It is the development of these applications that has cemented computers as a necessity in everyday life. It’s not possible to even run a modern-day business without a computer.
Like the development of PC applications, using AM to solve everyday problems is only limited by our imagination. While AM applicability is also driven by advances in material and machinery, decreasing costs have enabled many companies to leverage AM benefits. Activ Armor produces custom, 3D printed, breathable casts, KAV creates custom hockey helmets, and Michelin develops tires where the tread can be printed back on. Companies like Multiply Labs developed materials to print customizable, single-use pills, Biolife 4D manufacturing organs, and Redefine Meat creating a vegan steak from a beef 3D printer. Thinking small, Nano Dimension is customizing programmable control boards. Thinking big, Relativity Space is utilizing advanced metal AM techniques to build rockets for space. Indeed, the applicability of AM is expanding at every corner.
However, much like the development of Microsoft’s Office package or Apple’s MacPaint drove more PC adoption, key material and technological developments must still be achieved to expand the breadth and depth of 3D printing applicability and moving 3D printing technology a little closer to everyday use. Indeed, one factor that could accelerate the future of 3D printing is already responsible for accelerating the adoption of the PC worldwide: the internet.
Connect to the Internet
The rise of the PC arguably spawned the internet, allowing people from all corners of the globe to instantaneously share information. Information that was once only accessible to a small group of people is now accessible to everyone. This mass exchange of information has driven global efficiency in such a way that it became a necessity in every business and for most individuals worldwide. It is not uncommon for an individual’s PC to be integrated to his car, his phone, his personal assistant device (Amazon Echo), and his entertainment systems. Indeed, this interconnectedness is the latest chapter in the PC story, and AM will harness this power to more quickly manifest its position in everyday life.
An interconnected AM industry will enable users to gain access to any part and integrate seamlessly with a printer capable of creating the part. Cloud-based technology, housed online, will accelerate material and machinery advancements such that applications for 3D printing will be impossible to ignore. The PC industry had already blazed the trail in this regard. In the not-too-distant future, a printer will be connected to the refrigerator to print meals for the next day, a printer will monitor the weather and print the appropriate tire treads on a driver’s car, a printer will even print a replacement heart for a person undergoing heart transplant surgery.
What does this all mean?
If these predictions scare you, they should. If these predictions excite you, they should. Who knows what sort of future AM will build for us? One thing is for certain; we can look to other, more mature industries for insight. What patterns did they follow? What impact did they have? And we can be reassured that the future of AM is in our society, in our households, and in our lives for good.
The amount of innovation happening in additive manufacturing is expansive and changing daily. Listed below are examples of new technologies and applications being developed:
- Activ Armor is utilizing 3D scanning and printing to create custom breathable casts.
- Kav is creating custom 3D printing Hockey Helmets allowing for optimized protection.
- Multiply Labs has developed custom 3D printed pills that contain all of your prescriptions for the day in one pill. These capsules can release the prescription at a precise time of day depending on the design.
- Biolife4D is 3D printing organs for the medical industry. The most recent accomplishment is a fully completed miniature heart.
- Redefine Meat has created a vegan steak and beef 3D printer
- Relativity Space is utilizing metal 3D printing to print rockets for aerospace.
- Nano Dimension has developed a PCB printer allowing for custom electronic components
- Michelin has developed a 3D printed tire that wouldn’t need to be replaced as the tread could be reprinted.
- Mark Forged has developed Metal and composite 3D printers
- And much more…