In May, Regional Development Australia organised a tour of the RMIT Advanced Manufacturing Precinct. Business owners and local government representatives from the Hume region saw a glimpse of the manufacturing revolution offered by 3D printing technologies – allowing designers to turn virtual models into solid objects made from a range of plastics or metals.
Now, the arrival of consumer-level 3D printing is closer than ever. Printers are already available for pre-order through several companies, such as Cubify and Makerbot. Entry level products currently cost around $1300-1700, and typically print in plastics such as biodegradable PLA (often used for testing new designs), or durable ABS (the material used to cast LEGO bricks). They work by laying down many thin layers, building the design a fraction of a millimetre at a time. More expensive printers use multiple printing heads to produce full colour designs.
The implications of 3D printing are huge – potentially “resetting the economics of manufacturing” (in a Feb 2011 Economist article). By moving the place of production to individual homes, designers can sell their products in an electronic format around the world without requiring a physical distribution network. Physical location is not as important as the skills and creativity needed to use the new medium – potentially helping those in regional locations to better compete on a global scale.
While 3D printers are rapidly becoming more affordable, they are still beyond the reach of many consumers. To bridge this gap, many printer manufacturers have branched out into print-on-demand services, allowing designers to upload their creations to be printed at a central location. Cubify currently sells printed designs for products in categories such as Fashion and Art, while Makerbot directs people to share their creations directly on the Thingiverse (an online marketplace for “Digital designs for real, physical objects”).
In a world where custom manufacturing could be as affordable as mass production, there are many opportunities for individualised, personal designs. Inspired by the London 2012 olympics, Luc Fusaro’s Designed to Win project shows how this new technology can be used to enhance athlete performance by tailoring products – in this case, running shoes – to the exact specifications of the user. The future of manufacturing is closer than you might think.
The digital revolution has had a massive impact on many industries, from retail, to news, to IT services. It is about to change manufacturing out of all recognition. This change will result from the process of additive manufacturing or 3d printing. The NBN is a key enabler as 3d printing will result in thousands of large design files being downloaded and sent to 3d printers across Australia.
3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. 3D printing is achieved using additive processes, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printing is considered distinct from traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes) which mostly rely on the removal of material by drilling, cutting etc. (Definition from Wikipedia).
The Economist Magazine has run a number of articles on 3d printing in 2012, predicting that 3d printing will cause a third industrial revolution.
“Three-dimensional printing makes it as cheap to create single items as it is to produce thousands and thus undermines economies of scale. It may have as profound an impact on the world as the coming of the factory did….Just as nobody could have predicted the impact of the steam engine in 1750—or the printing press in 1450, or the transistor in 1950—it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.” The Economist, in a February 10, 2011 leader
(The report led with the caption “Print me a Stradivarius” and a picture of a Stradivarius violin that had been 3d printed http://www.economist.com/node/18114327 ).
In April 2012 it ran a full report on 3d printing available here: http://www.economist.com/node/215529013. One prediction in the report was that some of the business of making things will return to rich countries. The technology will have enormous consequences for Australian manufacturing and as such the Hume RDA organised a trip for local businesses to the RMIT Centre for Advanced Manufacturing. During the tour the group were shown 3d printers and prototypes. Below is a short video from the tour shot on a handheld camera. It includes footage of prototypes printed in titanium!
What does 3d printing mean for the Hume Region and how can we start preparing?