Manufacturing is heading in a new direction, one that will restructure the way the world currently creates most of its products. That direction is additive manufacturing, namely three-dimensional printing. It is a body of technology so tremendously impactful on human capabilities that it evokes the legend of Icarus. There are several different types of 3D printing, developed over the last three decades since the inception of the field in the early 1980s. The core idea remains consistent across time and sector—printing a physical product from a digital, 3D blueprint.
Since it is an emerging technology, the ramifications of 3D printing are still unclear. Is it really significant enough to be hailed a “third industrial revolution” by The Economist? In reality, the potential of the technology is staggering. Individual manufacturing elements will no longer need to be outsourced, and all production can be vertically integrated in a company with full-on 3D printing abilities. In addition, the amount of skilled and unskilled labor in general needed in manufacturing will drop significantly. The Economist suggests that this will push manufacturing back into the developed world, because the overall cost of production is significantly reduced in 3D printing models. Smarter production lines incorporating more robotics, AI and additive manufacturing principles are going to completely change the way we build and assemble. This seems to be trending towards unmanned factories, where the last human involvement in the manufacturing process is limited or forgone entirely. 3D printing seems to be poised to change the way the world manufactures.
It would appear 3D printing is powerful enough to reverse the trend of outsourcing manufacturing to the developing world. One strong practical application of it is in the oft-outsourced clothing industry. Even with sewing machines and contemporary technology, making clothes is still a labor-intensive process. Screen printing is overseen by factory workers, and many garments are still made largely by hand. But with 3D printing, the Kickstarter-funded Continuum Fashion company is digitally manufacturing swimwear and footwear.[ii] The line may be cost-prohibitive to the average consumer at the moment, but it is still a positive benchmark for the commercialization of additive manufacturing. This is just the start—another clothing designer is developing a machine that deconstructs and recycles old clothing into new garments. Another vision for the future is one where consumers are scanned upon entering a boutique, and then have custom-tailored clothes printed for them on the spot. Not only does 3D printing reduce manufacturing and labor costs, it also affords a previously-unimaginable level of customization.
Meanwhile on the university front, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have developed a tissue and organ printer (ITOP). With funding from the Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine, Wake Forest has successfully printed functional ear, bone and muscle tissue. The tissue is proving effective in animal testing—showing just how close we are to 3D-printed, transplantable human organs. The printed tissue adapts well to the host organisms, because they are a near-exact representation of their biological counterparts.
3D printing is at the core of a new industrial revolution, where businesses, governments and research institutions are coming together to make the technology commercially viable. Additive manufacturing is truly the most revolutionary thing to happen to production since the assembly line. It has the power to completely restructure how we bring a product to market, and greatly increase the scope of what can be made by mankind.