Indistinguishable from magic – 3-D Printing and the third industrial revolution

Arthur C Clarke once observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This quote surely applies to 3-D printing, which I first became aware of when I saw the video above last year. In fact, engineers and designers have been using 3D printers for more than three decades. Only now though are they beginning to filter into public consciousness. There is the same kind of buzz around 3-D printing now that there was around personal computers in the late 1970s. You have the geek hobbyists, but a lot of companies can also see the huge potential of this emerging technology. Could we be on the cusp of a third industrial revolution?

A 3-D printer is a machine that can turn a blueprint into a physical object. It is a bit of a misnomer as it’s not what you or I would understand as a printer. Initially, 3-D printing was known as rapid prototyping, as it its main use was to quickly fabricate conceptual models of new products. For example an architect could design a new building on a computer and print out a 3D model to show a client. But now these amazing devices are being used to produce real things. Additive manufacturing was its new name. Traditional manufacturing is subtractive – you take what you want from a larger piece of material. Sometimes an aircraft manufacturer will throw away 90% of the titanium they were using. But in additive manufacturing you build the object up one layer at a time. However additive manufacturing is not a name to capture the public’s imagination so it is now known as 3-D printing. It may not be the most accurate name, but I think they should stick with this one.

How does it work? First you need to create a 3-D model using computer-aided design (CAD) software. Alternatively, a 3D scanner can create a CAD design by scanning an object. Another program then “slices” the model into two-dimensional representations and instructs the printer to lay down an exact replica. You need to prepare the machine checking that it has all the polymers, binders and other consumables that the printer requires. Then you let the machine do its stuff. It builds by adding very thin layers one by one. Once it has been removed, the object may need some post processing such as brushing off any remaining powder. And then you have a 3-D object ready to be used.

Someone looking at the internet 20 years ago would probably not have foreseen Facebook, Netflix, the effects on the music and newspaper industries and the other disruption that it has caused. What can we expect from 3-D printing? It has been used to manufacture customised, fully functional prosthetic limbs and plastic and metal parts for cars and planes. One example that illustrates their potential is dental crowns. With 3-D printing they can be tailored for an individual patient. One machine can produce 450 in one day; traditional craft producers struggle to turn out a dozen a day. EOS, one of the leading companies in the e-Manufacturing sector, makes everything from cranial implants to shoes. And there is even a Chocolate 3-D Printer, which allows confectionary lovers to produce their own custom-made 3D creations. At a price of £2,500, I don’ think I’ll be rushing out to buy one.

All this new technology is going to change the way we make things. Until now manufacturing has been dominated by economies of scale. Assembly lines and supply chains can be reduced or eliminated for many products. Some de-globalisation may begin to take place, with production coming closer to the consumer. A manufacturing facility will  be able to print a huge range of types of products without needing to retool and each printing could be customized by tweaking the computer model at no additional cost. Products can be printed on demand without the need to maintain large inventories of new products and spare parts. This customisation may seem a bit frivolous at times, but when it comes to the human body, being able to make personalised implants could help save lives.

It doesn’t mean that mass production will disappear because some things are best made in large production runs. But the factories of the future will probably have 3D printers working alongside the more traditional milling machines, presses and foundries that dominate manufacturing now.

A lot of these production innovations have important environmental implications. In general there should be a more efficient use of resources with an important reduction in waste. Not having to ship goods half way across the world will substantially reduce manufacturing’s carbon footprint. 3-D printing could help build greener aircraft. Lightness is crucial for making aircraft more ecological – a reduction of just 1kg in the weight of an airliner will save around $3,000-worth of fuel a year cutting carbon-dioxide emissions. At the moment the size of printable parts is limited by the size of 3D printers, but bigger machine will be possible, and could be used to build airplane wings.

There are some things which may be seen as downsides. Competitive advantages will be more ephemeral than they have ever been. 3-D printing raises the spectre of mass piracy of objects. Battles over intellectual property are set to become even more intense. At the beginning of this year The Pirate Bay launched a new category on, their site. As well as music, films and software they now offer “physibles” – digital objects that can then be made on a 3-D printer. And what about the effect on manual labour? Will people be able to scan objects using a 3D scanner and share them online? In a recent Observer piece John Naughton the paper’s technology journalist expressed fears about job losses. While I think there will undoubtedly be disruption, I think that he is falling for the Luddite fallacy.

3-D printing is just part of a broader digital revolution in manufacturing with more new processes, sophisticated robots and collaborative manufacturing services available online. This is what we mean by a third industrial revolution. The first one took place in Britain in the late 18th century with the mechanisation of the textile industry. Henry Ford and his assembly line heralded the second revolution and the rise of mass production. There is obviously some degree of hype about this third industrial revolution, but I  disagree with the commenter on the Guardian website who argued  that it would only be useful for making custom dildos and bootleg Disney key fobs. 3-D printing is going to transform the landscape of manufacturing. Competition and cooperation from around the world promise many exciting new developments. This is what Matt Ridley memorably described as “ideas having sex.” There is a lot of doom and gloom around at the moment. Things do not look too good. But it is this type of human innovation that shows us how to create a brighter future.

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*According to one commenter on YouTube the wrench in the video would actually cost about $250 just in materials.

If you are interested in 3-D printing, there is also  a talk at TED,com by Lisa Hourani.

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