24th October 2014
There are times in life when we are fortunate to witness a genuine game changer. Imagine what it must have felt like making a telephone call, listening to the radio, or seeing a moving film, all for the first time. With no reference points the experience would likely have been mind-blowing for many people.
And of course in many ways the more things change the more they stay the same. Fast forward 130 years and the love affair we have with technology is as enduring and fascinating as ever. Regardless of the point in history any new technology is viewed with a mix of awe, excitement and speculation. Who would have thought even as little as 30 years ago, that the internet would be such an integral part of our daily routine? While living in the moment, it can be easy to miss the power of an innovation revolution.
And so it is with the 3D printer. Hailed by President Obama with "the potential to revolutionise the way we make almost everything", this piece of equipment has steadily been taking its position centre stage as a potent, yet practical, symbol of future technology.
Older than many of us realise, the technology has been around since 1984 (the same year in which Apple launched the Macintosh). Charles Hull, winner of the European Inventor Award 2014, originally developed stereo lithography, a printing process that enabled a tangible 3D object to be created from digital data.
During the 1990's the technology proved itself adaptable and practical. By the end of that decade 3D printing had contributed to real medical advances with the creation of a natural support structure for use during organ transplant.
Since 2000 the question appears to be 'what can't this piece of equipment do?' Output has included; an aircraft (which flew!), automotive components, jewellery, hats and even functioning body parts.
Essentially 3D printing makes copies of whatever pattern is sent to the printer, much in the same way a conventional printer lays down ink on paper. A 3D printer builds a structure, from the bottom up, through layering of materials, one wafer-thin row at a time, repeating the process for the next layer up. As if by magic, these layers then stick together to form a solid object.
Printers with multiple heads allow for greater flexibility. They can use different materials in each nozzle to, using a car as an example, build up a tail-light assembly in one piece, combining stronger brittle materials with weaker elastic elements for greater flexibility in bumpers. If fully developed and adopted as standard practice, it could eliminate the need for tooling – an expensive and time consuming part of the component manufacturing process.
The automotive industry, well known for innovative and cutting-edge design, has embraced this dynamic technology. This is particularly true of Formula One – where they go others follow. "3D printing is definitely the future of F1," an official Red Bull Racing spokesperson has said. "We could get to a point where we can print out a new front wing at the track if we've damaged one." Teams are predicting a 5 year window in which to implement this new technology so for all intents and purposes it is within reach.
First to accelerate from the start line in the race to dominate the full car production market, is Arizona-based Local Motors. They have produced a 3D printed car named Strati - Italian for 'layers'- made of one solid piece, composed of only 40 parts and made within only 44 hours. When you consider that a more conventional vehicle has more than 20,000 parts, the scale of the achievement is phenomenal.
With a top speed of 40mph and a battery range of 120 to 150 miles it is also fair to point out that while the chassis and the body of the car have been printed using a giant 3D printer, other key components including the tyres, seats and wheels were made using conventional methods. So whether the Strati can maintain this pole position and secure a podium place is entirely up to the car buying public. Speaking of which, the company hopes to offer their groundbreaking cars for between £11,000 to £18,000 depending on the types of optional features required.
And what does the future hold for this visionary technology - will it be a proof of concept or develop into a robust and lasting market? Well a study conducted by Visiongain seems to suggest the future is rosy with estimates that the 3D printing market will be worth more than £12 billion globally by 2018. According to the pioneer of the technology, Charles Hull "there are no barriers in the future. A lot of manufacturing could be moved locally or even to the home."
When you consider that a 3D printer can be purchased for under £2000, we could all be children of this revolution.