As usual, I have been spending some time looking at the breadth of 3D printing (3DP) / additive manufacturing (AM) applications ‘out there’. It is something that I have been lucky enough to do for many years now, but this week I approached the online search conscious of the many “newbies” that were potentially doing the same thing following the viral video and TV air time on a series of news/information channels.
A couple of things struck me.
The first was how pleasing it is to get pages of links that all take me directly to genuine 3D printing applications or commentaries on tech developments, rather than having to scroll through copious irrelevant sites that either offer 3-dimensional products / photographs / films or 'superior, can't be beaten on price' 2D printing services. Of course, there are also plenty of ads promoting companies that offer 3D printing services, but in this context, I don't think it is such a bad thing. Overall, this is an improvement on even just a few months ago when I set out looking for new applications for the TCT Live 2011 programme (which, incidentally, is complete and can be found here: http://www.tctmagazine.com/x/tct-live/v-seminar.html)! For anyone newly interested in 3D printing or additive manufacturing, the fact that there is a wealth of applications and information at their fingertips is great and will hopefully serve to develop their curiosity into something more.
Second, there is a definite divide in the type of applications that exist. Even going back to the earliest days of rapid prototyping (RP), this divide was in evidence, but today it is stark. I am referring to the aesthetic versus the functional applications of additive technology (I did consider labelling the difference as sparkly versus non-sparkly or consumer versus non-consumer, but they were technically less correct!). Even using the aesthetic versus functional terminology it should still be noted that the terms are not mutually exclusive, as the aesthetic products often have a function and functional products can look attractive. However, I believe it makes the point I am making most successfully.
Whether the dominant aim is to achieve an aesthetically pleasing product or a fully functional part or prototype, the designs and products being realized with 3D printing are just so impressive — occasionally breathtaking and always inspiring.
As a commentator (and a consumer, it must be said) I am constantly blown away by much of the aesthetically pleasing 3D printed products available and I aspire to own them in the fullness of time. However, it is important to recognize and fully appreciate the engineering brilliance and technical capabilities of AM parts. You may have picked up on the nuances of the language I am using (3D printing for aesthetic/consumer facing applications and additive manufacturing for functional/industrial applications) but without getting into the whole terminology debate once again, I think this works. As 3D printing continues to take centre stage, it is vital that the strides being made within industrial applications are not overlooked. A few days ago, EADS and EOS announced a collaboration exploring weight reduction with the DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) process. Weight reduction has been cited as an advantage of additive manufacturing for some time, but the huge benefits that can be derived from it — particularly for aerospace companies — cannot be underestimated in terms of money, sustainability and the environment.
Being on the fringes of this industry (as I consider myself to be) is a really great place. The industry is truly blossoming as I always believed it would. New companies are being set up at an increasing rate, based solely on 3D printing. More established 3D printing/AM companies (previously RP bureaux) are reporting growing order books and increased uptake, and the vendors of the machines, in the main, are reporting year on year growth and profits. The revenue being generated by these applications is vital to the continued growth of the industry and indeed, western manufacturing economies.
Talking of fabulous, watch out for my favourite finds — coming soon — a hat tip to some of the sensational work of the designers and the technology.