3D printing shows promise but a new industrial revolution will have to wait

Paul Reeves
BY LUCK or coincidence, many of the patents involved in “additive” production technologies (or 3D printing) – invented in large part by S Scott Crump – expired in 2009, just as the financial crisis was refocusing attention towards manufacturing and “rebalancing” the economy.

Now 3D printing is rarely out of the news. It’s seen as having the potential to create new markets, to democratise production, and even to reformulate the boundaries of the economy in what some have termed a New Industrial Revolution. At least in the UK, manufacturing has the scope to be cool again, and to play a crucial role in the future of the economy.

It’s not difficult to see why it could be a liberating technology. Additive manufacturing techniques take many forms – but many work in a similar way to 2D inkjet colour printers. Most add thin layers of printed material, selectively laid down under the computerised control of a print head, using information from a computer-aided design system. As such, 3D printing promises to allow almost any shape to be created out of (almost) any material. In particular, parts with “voids” – or internal cavities – can be produced with far fewer manufacturing steps than traditional subtractive technologies, where access to internal areas using a machine tool can be challenging. This particular process could help reduce the weight of products, limit material usage, and enhance aesthetic properties.

For product designers, film props manufacturers, or those working in medical implant design, being able to quickly fashion a lightweight, complex shape is desirable if not essential. Having fewer steps also de-skills the process, and allows for increased automation of manufacturing overall. The industry implications are huge.

Some have argued, however, that using fewer manufacturing steps and increasingly cheaper 3D printers could lead to the “democratisation” of production. It is a concept promoted most vocally by the writer Chris Anderson in his recent book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. Here he argues that a raft of small-scale Makers will transform manufacturing at a local level.

But we shouldn’t get carried away. While real gains from 3D printing are being made in industry, we should question the assumptions made about its future on the consumer level. On the fun (if itself over-hyped) Gartner Hype Cycle of technological adoption, the use of additive techniques by companies is climbing nicely along the “slope of enlightenment”. Consumer 3D printing, meanwhile, is at the peak of the hype curve, ready to fall into what Gartner terms the “trough of disillusionment”.

First, predictions of home 3D printing being analogous to what occurred in the 1980s and 1990s with desktop printing are wide of the mark. Designing and making useful physical products in the home at the very least requires the commoditisation of engineering design software, which is much more complex than for word processing and graphic design software.

Secondly, to manufacture, transport and otherwise support the printing process on a consumer level, many more materials will be needed than for home paper printers. It is more likely that the trend will kick off through 3D printing agencies – whether on the high street, or via companies like Materialise in alliance with delivery services like TNT or UPS. It is premature to expect that a combination of new financing models (like crowd-funding) and 3D printing will change the way materials are processed and transported to allow consumer production in a way that would constitute a new industrial revolution.

Thirdly, and most importantly, new industries will be extremely dependent on traditional industry and existing means of organising businesses. The development of new materials for 3D printing, for example, is unlikely to occur in the “hipster” environs of Silicon Roundabout. To ensure that the real potential of additive manufacturing can be realised, businesses will require teams of trained chemists, physicists and metallurgists, serious R&D budgets and, in many cases, long term, open-ended research to produce a pipeline of truly innovative materials over the coming decades.

Many entrepreneurs and designers, in their rush to escape the perceived dominance of “big industry”, are willing to dream about a technology that undoubtedly shows promise. But technological enhancement is a poor substitute for genuine political will when it comes to making a revolution.

Paul Reeves is an engineering software developer in Cambridge. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival, held at London’s Barbican on 19-20 October, partnered by City A.M. For more information visit www.battleofideas.org.uk