It’s the reversal of digitization: bits turn into atoms – the world is printing in 3D. An exciting technology that’s already fascinating millions of people – but where does the hype finish and the profitability start?.
Mechanical engineering, consumer goods, aviation, fashion, medicine, pharmaceuticals, art – the most varied areas of activity all agree on one thing: “We want 3D printers!” And it's hardly surprising - after all, the technology allows all kinds of objects to be designed at the computer and produced by a printer. Additive manufacturing creates just about anything anyone could want, layer by layer.
The media can’t get enough of news about the latest fascinating printed products: “touchable memories” enable blind people to capture moments in a 3D model like a photograph, for example, while replicated paintings and sculptures bring the originals to life in museums. There's a touch of science fiction in the air when models stride down the catwalk in futuristically styled print garments or surgeons perform complex operations on printed organs. Even food such as pasta can come out of the printer.
The third big revolution?
There’s a lot of hype surrounding 3D printers. Die-hard fans refer to them as the next groundbreaking IT innovation after computers and the internet, for example. Volker Növermann can’t help but grin when he hears this kind of glorified comparison. “Of course 3D printing is a technology with enormous potential.
But it’s still in its infancy. The future will tell whether all the hype we’re hearing now will actually turn into sustainable profitability,” says the Manager for strategic Projects at TÜV Rheinland. There is certainly no question that 3D printer technology is more than a flash in the pan.
Firstly, the machines have already been used in industrial manufacturing for years, for example in the production of prototypes or aircraft parts made of plastic or metal.
Secondly, according to a forecast by Siemens, the cost of production using 3D printing is set to at least halve in the years to come, while printing speed is expected to increase by 400 percent. “This is precisely why it’s so important for us as a testing company to look at the whole area very closely so as to keep up-to-date and go on learning,” says Volker Növermann.
In order to be able to market 3D printing systems successfully worldwide, it’s very important for manufacturers, sales partners and operators to be able to obtain testing and certification services for their manufacturing machines from an independent source.
A particular challenge in these tests is individual risk assessment since 3D printers differ considerably in their design and functioning. “Based on our considerable expertise in approving and testing industrial machines, our team in Japan under Vilmos Sztaroveczki and Frank Becker was recently able to attract two producers in the area of industrial 3D printing as customers.
In the USA, the team under Jonathan Kotrba is also working with well-known manufacturers and in Germany we will soon be holding a specialist conference,” says Volker Növermann. There's a lot of new territory for the experts to cover: in addition to the electrical and mechanical risks, there are also potential chemical risks to be taken into account from the printing material used.
Plastic, gold and chocolate
Plastic and metal are the most common materials from which objects are printed. But depending on the technology used, numerous other materials are possible such as ceramics, clay, gold, silver, plaster, synthetic resin, sand, glass, chocolate and dough.
In China the company WinSun printed ten stable houses in 24 hours from recycled garbage. Cost: less than 5,000 dollars each. 3D printing is not generally speaking a low-cost option, however. “The materials are often considerably more expensive than those used in normal production,” says Növermann. So it is debatable whether the technology will ever be used for classic mass production.
But on the other hand 3D printing does save a lot of material. When a three-dimensional workpiece is created using a printer, only the amount of material is used that is actually required for the object – unlike in the case of cutting, milling, lathing or drilling. Another advantage can be seen on a global economic level.
People are increasingly asking why goods have to be transported by air or ship over long distances. It’s expensive, time-consuming and harmful to the environment. So why not print products out where they're needed? Even on the moon. It may sound fantastical but it’s true: the European Space Agency is already testing 3D printers to make a lunar base.
There’s no doubt that 3D printers very much capture the spirit of the times with their capacity to provide endless new creative possibilities. The range of functions continues to grow non-stop: experimental materials, user-friendly software, the ability to scan objects and replicate them, and new complex tools that allow objects to be printed using different materials at the same time.
“It’s exciting to observe how the technology is developing and how the way we think about production itself is changing, too – both in the industrial context and in household use,” says Volker Növermann.
But in spite of all the euphoria, it's good to remember that 3D printers are ultimately machines programmed by human beings and not magic boxes. And the idea of an all-purpose home 3D printer for making toys, electronics, new pair of jeans and ideally lunch as well is likely to remain a Utopia – for the time being.
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