It’s a bird, it’s a 3D printed plane!

Yesterday I came across an article in New Scientist explaining how engineers managed to build the first plane with 3D printing technology. The flying drone took a week to create and bypassed the traditional product line:

The article notes, “3D printing has come on in leaps and bounds since its origins as an expensive prototyping tool over two decades ago. It uses laser-assisted machines to fabricate plastic or metal objects, building up the item layer by layer, each slice just 100 micrometres thick.”

The applications in aviation are quite exciting since ideas have often been too expensive or technically complicated to build with traditional processes. Moreover, 3D printing is set to revolutionize countless industries, with the rapid production of things like furniture, mobile phones, refrigerator parts, prosthetic legs, car parts, chocolate (!), and even homes.

Despite my usual weariness of hype, I can’t help but be excited by the technology’s transformative possibilities.

New Scientist claims the “second industrial revolution is under way.” The New York Times wrote last year that “3-D Printing is Spurring a Manufacturing Revolution” and explains, “Advocates of the technology say that by doing away with manual labor, 3-D printing could revamp the economics of manufacturing and revive American industry as creativity and ingenuity replace labor costs as the main concern around a variety of goods.” The Economist, which in true form steers clear of hyperbole, notes in a very helpful industry overview that some “believe that the effect of 3D printing on manufacturing will be analogous to that of the inkjet printer on document printing.”

In a fascinating discussion about intellectual property law and 3D printing (i.e., in theory, what protections exist when someone can print almost anything using any material), the author compares the impact to the Gutenberg Press. He writes, “Though still in its infancy, 3D printing technology promises to democratize creation the same way the Gutenberg Press democratized knowledge. Broken dishwasher part? Download the relevant CAD (computer-aided design) file and print it.”

3D printing allows for low volume, high quality production, often with speed-fire turnaround. In fashion, this has already taken off as with Spanish retail giant Zara, whose stores often receive only a couple shipments of small-batch trendy delights. Speed is of the essence, as VC Albert Wenger explains, “Physical objects can now be developed iteratively just like we have grown used to with web sites.”

Not only does 3D printing change the manufacturing process, it changes the economics. For inventory management, this is a bit of a dream as manufacturers no longer need to keep stock of obscurities like coil springs for a 1967 Mustang. It might also call for more local (and hence sustainable) production, as on-demand printing is often cheaper than transcontinental shipping. The original applications of 3D printing should not be ignored either; rapid prototyping with less expensive printers can lower the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs of all stripes.

For those without mad CAD skills or a fine-tuned design sensibility, several companies are offering widespread access to creation on-demand. A personal favorite is Shapeways, which provides tools for community members to customize products from cuff-links to lampshades, and also connects them with designers to build out more sophisticated designs like a dream chair. For the shopping-inclined, they have a marketplace à la Etsy with 3D printed gadgets, home decor, and jewelry, including this awesome deer ring:

From nature to computer to hand...

In a 2008 blog post unveiling the Shapeways Creator, former community manager Joris Peels explains the leading role the company has taken in “personal manufacturing and mass customization. I would extend the claim further in that Shapeways and other B2C services like TechShop or MakerBot are enabling customization for the masses.

Medical device companies, jewelers, and drone enthusiasts alike all have reason to celebrate – making cool stuff has never been easier.

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