Print a house, print a dress, or even print a new prosthetic limb; 3D printing can do it all and in Australia it’s creating new disruptive business models.
3D printing is a process of making three dimensional objects from digital files. It is truly a print process in three dimensional space through the layering of materials. Depending on the type of product, layering can occur at a nano (x10-9), micro (x10-6) or macro level, and with a variety of materials from polymers to metal powders.
My personal experience as an engineer was to marvel at the ability to create three dimensional CAD models on Solidworks at university. The possibility of rapidly and cost effectively prototyping one of these drawings to determine if the proportions, sizing, look or feel of a product is appropriate and to test a prototype in the real world is truly amazing. No longer does a drawing need to be emailed to a prototype factory – models can be built and tested in situ. 3D printing also enables production runs to occur with set up times in minutes. Short run manufacturing means that developers receive feedback from customers using pilot products.
3D printers have been around for decades and many product-based companies have been using these printers for rapid prototyping during their research and development cycles.
What is new is the accessibility and affordability of 3D printer models, allowing schools, universities and every day consumers to own, operate and innovate themselves. A one metre tall 3D printer that can print to 10 microns can be purchased for under A$20,000. And, 3D printers are now available at a far more reasonable cost for the rapid manufacturing and printing of finished products for consumer use.
The possibilities are endless when you take away the limitations of traditional building and manufacturing processes. The true potential of 3D printing will be unleashed with the next generation who will grow up not thinking that a house needs to be built with bricks and mortar over a year, but printed as a holistic single product in a matter of hours.
The tech nerd in me cannot write a 3D printing article without throwing in some of the cool things that are currently being tried around the world:
First we head to Shanghai, China to watch a private company (WinSun Decoration Design Engineering) 3D print ten full-sized houses (excluding the roof) in 24 hours, utilising layers of refined construction waste and cement for the walls instead of traditional bricks and mortar. Elimination of waste during the construction cycle is a key advantage with this new technology.
We then head to the fashion runways of Paris where Dutch designer Iris Van Herpen designed (or rather printed) her Spring/Summer 2012 Haute Couture collection using a pulsed laser that layered powdered rubbers or metals into her unique creations.
We finish up in the UK and the Open Hand Project. This is an initiative to create robotic prosthetic hands that are more accessible to amputees. Leading prosthetics can cost up to $100,000. Through 3D printing and careful material selection (i.e. ABS, a durable plastic compound), the Open Hand Project is able to lower the cost by two orders of magnitude (i.e. to under $1000).
Locally, Western Sydney University has been on an innovative transformation journey over the last two years; transforming campus design, course programs and how students are engaged on campus. As part of this transformation, they opened a MakerSpace in its Penrith campus offering open access every Thursday between 1-6pm to its 3D Printers, fabrication equipment and robotics. A great opportunity to experience 3D printing for yourself.
KPMG has recently formed an alliance with Western Sydney University’s Launch Pad Smart Business Centres to help innovative companies and start-ups access the breadth of innovation and business growth advisory services of the firm. A great success story of the Launch Pad initiative is Stephen Brinks of 3D Brink who designs and builds his own range of high-tech 3D printing machines. Stephen went within two years from a home based garage workshop with mixed success to an overhauled growing business within Launch Pad. Following Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s recent visit to the facility 3D Brink has become known to 40,000 followers and the company is looking to expand beyond making three machines a week to high volume production.
The disruptive technology of 3D printing seems limitless. According to Stephen Brinks you can even print your next 3D printer with the one you already have.