• March 29, 2016

Long Live the Prints: The Next Industrial Revolution Is in 3-D

It’s touted as the next game changer. It’s predicted to revolutionize manufacturing. But what else will 3-D printing disrupt?

Fine dining? That’s what journalist Eustacia Huen suggests. She notes the pivot point: Mateo Blanch, a Michelin-star chef at La Boscana, a restaurant in Lleida, Spain, created the first 3-D printed five-course meal. This technologically advanced meal was served at the 3D Printshow last year in London. With 3-D printing, chefs can plate precise, highly detailed culinary works in chocolate, sauces, and other edible mediums. They can also design geometrically elaborate molds for things like gelatins and cake toppers. There’s even talk of subscription food clubs providing members culinary cartridges to print out meals created by master chefs.

From Words to Things

Like the microprocessor, designed for nothing in particular but capable of doing virtually anything, the 3-D printer will transform a broad portfolio of industries. These printers have been used for years to rapidly produce inexpensive models and prototypes. But 3-D printing is now being widely adopted for on-site, on-demand parts production for everything from beverage machines to mining equipment located in remote areas. And because it eliminates several steps in the manufacturing process, 3-D printing is projected to have wide industrial applications.

Fuel nozzles for GE’s Leap jet engine were produced with an industrial 3-D metal printer. In the traditional manufacturing process, 20 separate parts were machined together to create the nozzle’s interior channels. Its 3-D replacement—operationally more efficient and five times stronger—is a single piece. Cutting-edge technologies promise to dramatically slash the costs of titanium powder production. This means aerospace, automobile, and appliance manufacturers could potentially use the strong, lightweight, and corrosion-resistant metal to print a wide range of titanium components more cost effectively.

And because of the flexibility inherent in the process, users are able to print industrial parts with complex geometries that were never thought possible. It also facilitates short production runs—from 1,000 units to a single customized example—that are cost-competitive with traditional manufacturing processes.

From Industrial Machines to High Fashion

But perhaps the 3-D printing application with the richest potential is customized consumer products. Nike is developing technology utilizing 3-D scans, pressure maps, and detailed gait analysis to print customized running shoes for users right in the store. Normal Ears Inc. prints customized earphones, some plated with 14-karat rose gold, from images of the user’s ear captured with a mobile app.

These examples illustrate how seamlessly 3-D printing meshes with personalization, a highly prized pursuit among today’s consumers. These people are looking to differentiate their styles through accessories and highly unusual jewelry designs that 3-D printing makes possible.

While in the past, 3-D printers have been slow to catch on with consumers, that could change this year. Mattel has revived its 1960s-era ThingMaker—a do-it-yourself toy creation process using liquid plastic and heated metal molds—with 3-D printer technology. Polaroid is introducing a consumer 3-D printer that allows users to print with either plastic or wood resins.

The 3-D printing industry is projected to grow from $3.07 billion in 2013 to more than $21 billion by 2020. And there’s one thing you can bank on: This decentralized industrial revolution will be rife with the unexpected.

Like this story? Read about how 3-D printing could influence the automotive industry.