3D printing to empower final consumers

The industry has been using it for a while, and now 3D printing is coming to our homes. Just like the personal computer revolution changed people’s lives in the 1970s, the emerging 3D printing market, with increasingly small and affordable devices, makes it easier for everyone to bypass conventional production chains and manufacture at home the goods that they need.

3D printing: a major breakthrough?

3D printing, also known as additive layer manufacturing (ALM), could bring about significant and unsuspected changes to our production system and daily lives. The technologies involved in ALM, however, are not brand-new: for instance, stereo-lithography, i.e. the process by which ultra-violet light is emitted to harden a layer of liquid plastic, was patented in 1986 by 3D Systems, Inc.

What is 3D printing ?

The basic principle behind 3D printing is not very different from that of paper printing as we know it: just like a “2D printer” forms a text or an image line after line using ink, a 3D printer uses polymers to create an object layer by layer. In both cases, the printing process is started and controlled by a computer, on which the final object is designed:  this first step is called computer-aided design (CAD).

Three technologies are used during the printing phase: fused deposition modelling (FDM), stereo-lithography (SLA) and selective laser sintering (SLS), i.e. the discarding of imperfections and useless elements.

A dynamic market for a highly versatile device

Patents for the latter process will expire in 2014, which should drive the 3D printing market, which will then represent nearly 669 million dollars (536 million for businesses and 133 million for households), according to the Gartner Institute. An indubitable sign of success, the next Consumer Electronic Show, which will take place in Las Vegas in January 2014, chose to feature 3D printing as its main attraction.

The NASA planned to send a 3D printer into space by June 2014 in order to help astronauts at the international space station to manufacture equipment in zero gravity. Be it in the fields of aeronautics, aerospace industry or modern medicine, 3D printing opens new horizons which could transform our daily lives.

In a recent article in French newspaper La Tribune, journalist Delphine Cuny wonders whether “each home will be transformed into a miniature factory, empowering consumers to create whatever they want”. In his book Energie 3.0, Rexel CEO Rudy Provoost forecasts a decentralization of manufacturing thanks to 3D printing.

3D printing, energy 3.0

The factory in every home isn’t here yet

According to Duncan Stewart, director of technology, media, and telecommunications research at Deloitte Canada, “you can very well print plates at home, but it will cost you 10 to 30 times more than going to your local department store […] You could print a pair of plastic flip-flops, but not a pair of performance running shoes, which are made of 50 to 60 different materials. Even in three years, it won’t be possible. […] The factory in every home isn’t here yet!”

Besides, 3D printing poses many concerns to security specialists and politicians: manufacturing of regulated goods (arms…), failure to meet safety requirements, intellectual property theft… In France, the UMP (right) representative François Cornut-Gentille, mindful of the risks related to 3D printing, asked the minister of industry to think of “courses of action against unlawful copying made possible by the impending arrival of 3D printers on the French market”. The debate remains thus open until the massive dissemination of the technology takes place.

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