We have recently been asked to present 3D Printing at a variety of events, many not in our traditional mechanical engineering space, and a common theme is emerging. Once people see through the hype and really understand what the technology can and can’t do, they want to understand what the real long term value is.
I’ve been mulling it for a while, then a Facebook friend of mine sent me the video below of a company in China that has a working 3D Printer for buildings. It is basically an FDM machine that uses concrete. It is still early days and much work is still needed. But it shows the one key value of 3D printing to the general public:
3D Printing gives people without special training or equipment the ability to make stuff.
Here is the video:
If I want to build a sturdy house, I need to know how to lay brick/frame/hang sheetrock/prefab concrete. I also need all the various tools required to do that. If I have a 3D house printer, I just need the raw materials and a model of the house I want. Imagine volunteers showing up in a remote village with a 3D Printer on the back of a flatbed. Those volunteers don’t need to be trained on how to build a house. Just how to run the printer. If you have ever volunteered for a Habitat for Humanity or a mission that involves house building, you know what I’m talking about. The two real construction workers on the crew do 90% of the work and the rest of you try not to put a nail through your hand.
There are other applications. Take a military unit that needs to quickly build a shelter at a forward operating base. Instead of requiring experienced combat engineers, hit print. Or even in your own backyard. Want a small cabana for Grandma to live in. Hire a contractor and wait six months through delays and cost overruns, or rent a 3D printer – my guess is the 3D printer will show up on time.
Take this thought and apply it to the traditional use of 3D Printers, prototyping in mechanical product development, and it still applies. I ordered that first SLA model of a fan blade way back in 1990 or so because we needed to make sure the turbine engine fan blade shape we redesigned (using ANSYS, of course) was manufacturerable, had no unexpected bumps (trust, me it happened before), and could be assembled into the existing disk. Instead of going to a machine shop and having an expert machine, broach and grind it, we went straight from the solid model to a printed part. No need for experts or the 5 or 6 pieces of special equipment required to machine and broach that blade.
Just a few examples where 3D printing enables end-users of a physical item to make it without expertise, skills, or special equipment: dental implants, jewelry, art work, fixtures or tooling for a manufacturing process, scaffolds for growing new body parts, and even fancy chocolates. All of these examples show how 3D printing lets the person who needs an object, create that object themselves. This reduces time and distractions from the true focus of their effort.
This is what is really exciting. Not making a replacement part for your washing machine or “bringing manufacturing back to the US (automation and good old fashioned market forces will do that, not 3D printing) but being able to make whatever you really want. I will sit here and print out my mechanical parts and assemblies, happily avoiding the need to use a machine shop to build a prototype. And while I do that, I’ll keep get great joy from scanning the interweb to see what new and truly novel applications people will come up with.