The Rise of 3-D Printing and its Effects on the Future

By: Divyesh Chotai, Associate

With the rapid expansion of low-cost three-dimensional printers, 3D printing has significantly evolved in recent years. This rapid development has produced machines that are capable of printing larger products at faster speeds. Three-dimensional printing refers to the process of creating virtually any 3D object with assorted materials including plastic, metal, and carbon fiber.

Three years ago, only engineers used 3D printing to quickly build prototypes. Since then, the use of 3D printers has expanded to average consumers, small businesses, and a slew of entrepreneurial companies who are dynamically changing the way popular manufacturers build their products. For example, Boeing and General Electric are using 3D printers to make dozens of airplane and jet engine parts.

Three-dimensional printing is one of the fastest-growing markets in the status quo. Desktop 3D printers have become so popular that they are now available for purchase from retailers like Home Depot and Amazon. The printers are also rapidly filling up hackerspaces and startup offices around the world. In 2013, Gartner reported a 49% growth in 3D printers that cost under $100,000. In 2014, analysts predicted a 75% market growth. A report by the Allied Market Research affirmed this by predicting that the global 3D printing market will reach $8.6 billion by 2020.

Gartner also predicted that the technology will reach mainstream adoption at both the enterprise and consumer level in the next decade. The potential of 3D printing has opened up new worlds of creativity for consumers, as well as new opportunities for entrepreneurs. From a practical view however, 3D printing has its benefits as well as its drawbacks.

With creations ranging from custom jewelry and makeup to kayaks, users can take advantage of blueprints found online to build numerous objects. Just last year, Natural Machines (based in Spain) announced the Foodini, a 3D printer that uses ingredients from stainless steel capsules to print an edible meal. Foodini promotes healthier eating at home by eliminating the time consuming portions of making dinner.

Local Motors unveiled the world’s first 3D-printed electric car at the 2014 SEMA Show in Las Vegas. The Strati vehicle is presented under a Creative Commons license, which allows consumers to download the blueprints and print the car at home in less than 45 hours, assuming they have a large enough printer. Innovations like the Strati prove that 3D printers can yield more cost-effective products than those produced by our current manufacturing companies.

Researchers are also making advancements towards 3D printing organs for transplants. California-based biotech firm Organovo is already set to begin selling 3D-printed liver tissue by the end of this year. Professor Lawrence Bonassar, of Cornell University’s biomedical engineering department, 3D printed a functioning artificial ear. This new area of medicine and 3D printing holds plenty of potential in the future by helping clear up organ transplant waitlists, and save lives at the same time.

On, the other hand, 3D printing can also disservice society. A prime example of this is the overwhelming amount of firearm blueprints circulating the Internet. YouTube has plenty of videos of people from all over the world shooting 3D printed guns. Many of these firearms cost less than $10 to make, and are capable of killing a human in one shot, according to Director Hod Lipson of the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University. Lipson also noted that these plastic guns are easily fabricated and are very difficult to detect at security points. This can add to the already growing threat of shootings at airports we have seen in recent years.

As a precaution, the Department of Homeland Security has emphasized the fact that consumers would be breaking the Undetectable Firearms Act if they were to print an all-plastic gun. The law prohibits possession of firearms that cannot be detected at security checkpoints by metal detectors. However, the threat still remains significant in countries outside of the United States.

The expansion of 3D printers has also raised concerns regarding their environmental harms. Firstly, research by Loughborough University finds that 3D printers consume about 50 to 100 times more electrical energy that injection molding, meaning that 3D printers are better for only small batch runs. Industrial-sized 3D printers are not a better alternative to coal power as of now.

Secondly, the Illinois Institute of Technology finds that 3D printers may produce health risks when used at home. The researchers found that the emissions of desktop 3D printers are very similar to those of burning a cigarette or cooking on a stove. The 2013 study found that heating the plastic to print small figures emitted over 20 billion particles per minute. These particles can settle in the lungs or the bloodstream and may pose as health risks, especially for those with asthma.

Third, 3D printing heavily relies on plastics to print objects. The most common material used in 3D printers is ABS plastic filament. Although using raw materials would reduce the amount of waste, printers still leave behind excess plastic in print beds. This ABS byproduct ends up in landfills, unrecyclable, and can often harm the environment in other indirect ways.

All in all, 3D printing has a copious amount of uses that can be used to benefit society. Although it has its drawbacks, 3D printing is still a relatively new and has a rapidly growing market. As time progresses, we will be able to witness the net impact 3D printing has on our world, and the many new uses it will bring to the table in coming years.