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Additive Manufacturing: Is 3D Printing the Future?

December 20, 2011
at 11:08 am PST

It seems like something out of Star Trek. A “replicator” – something that can create any complex object from generic raw materials, such as powdered metal. Well, these replicators actually already exist, and they are called 3D printers. The process by which objects are created by 3D printers is called “additive manufacturing.”

If you’ve never seen additive manufacturing in action, then prepare to be impressed:

The machine and process are fascinating, but are they the future of manufacturing? Obviously, the first problem is scale. 3D printers are far too expensive and slow to produce at the rate necessary for a full-scale, commercial manufacturing operation. However, all of that could change – and quickly. Think about the rapid advancements in computing over the last 10 years. Could this apply to a physical device? Perhaps, but it depends on whether or not the demand for it exists.

What becomes obsolete?

One difficulty manufacturers face is when market forces affect the demand for a product. If a plant has been designed to produce a very specific widget, for example, then what happens when there is no longer a market for that widget? If the plant can’t quickly adapt to producing a new widget, then it becomes obsolete – and along with it the jobs of its workers.

With additive manufacturing, that problem may not exist. All a 3D printer would require is a new blueprint design file and a completely different widget is produced. This could give any manufacturer a strong competitive advantage over a less-nimble rival. However, would this ability to print anything from a machine make workers obsolete?

A technological change so profound will reset the economics of manufacturing. Some believe it will decentralise the business completely, reversing the urbanisation that accompanies industrialisation. There will be no need for factories, goes the logic, when every village has a fabricator that can produce items when needed. Up to a point, perhaps. But the economic and social benefits of cities (see article) go far beyond their ability to attract workers to man assembly lines.

Others maintain that, by reducing the need for factory workers, 3D printing will undermine the advantage of low-cost, low-wage countries and thus repatriate manufacturing capacity to the rich world. It might; but Asian manufacturers are just as well placed as anyone else to adopt the technology. And even if 3D printing does bring manufacturing back to developed countries, it may not create many jobs, since it is less labour-intensive than standard manufacturing.

What does the future hold?

For now, 3D printers are just in the domain of modelers and designers. That may be a good thing. IP protection will certainly be an issue, and the possible loss of labor and jobs could have far-reaching effects. Therefore, as with many other Star Trek devices, we’ll have to wait and see if they – and their consequences — become reality.

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13 Comments.


  1. Answers to many of the questions you present will be answered at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers RAPID & 3D IMAGING Event in Atlanta, May 22-25, 2012. Hope to see Cisco’s manufacturing engineers there! http://www.sme.org/rapid

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  2. I appreciate that a large business is talking about how 3dp can affect not just the economics of manufacturing but the workers and factories that keeps it all going. One thing I have been considering is whether a more efficient system of getting products into the home will make those products cheaper and in turn make consumers’ money go farther. I’m no economics guy but is that even possible?

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    • January 3, 2012 at 11:57 am

      Hi Yoni – I think you’re asking two very good questions: would it stretch the consumer dollar, and, is it even possible? I think the answer to the former is definitely ‘yes’, but the latter is the tricky part. Thanks for commenting!

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  3. The machine and process are fascinating. In the meantime, a great blog

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    • January 5, 2012 at 5:23 pm

      Thanks, Serdar!

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  4. That is pretty amazing.

    As a photographer, I’m fascinated.

    Tampa Bay Photography

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  5. I can see this getting to a point where we all have personal 3D printers, it would be the end of retail stores as we know it!

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    • January 5, 2012 at 5:15 pm

      Hi Bob – that’s a great point. It would be interesting if individual citizens suddenly became self-sufficient manufacturers. Think about how that would affect the economy!

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  6. hopefully..why not.

    technology really are unstoppable.

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  7. There is a new 3D printer on the market from 2BOT called the ModelMaker that is not mentioned here. This 3D printer uses a subtraction technology that enables it to print models ~10 times faster than additive printers and the consumable print material costs $0.02 /in3 ($0.328 / cm3). This printer also has access to the entire Google 3DWarehouse to print models directly from, can do terrain models from Google Earth, and can create lithophanes from pictures! To get more information, visit http://2bot.com.

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  8. January 14, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    This is insane stuff. Mind-boggling. Madam Tussauds is in deep trouble if this “Machine” starts making replica of a human being and looking at the video, I’m pretty sure, it can.

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  9. Looks like the world of manufacturing is rapidly following the “democratization” path that has dramatically changed the face and bottom line of photography and media industries. Open source design tools/software and advances such as this will allow anyone with an idea to become a manufacturer, artisan, etc.

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