The Economist recently put a violin manufactured using 3D printing on its cover - one of the few times where engineering made the front page - and discussed the technology in that issue's "leaders" and "briefing" sections. Here are some highlights:
- 3D printing is an additive (as opposed to subtractive) manufacturing technology where you build a product layer by layer - for instance, "depositing material from a nozzle" - rather than removing unneeded material.
- 3D printing enables the production of items in very small quantities; you might create one spare part for your car or, say, one lampshade. In fact, the technology has been used for years for prototypes - what is new is that the finished product is now made using 3D printing too.
- For now, the process only works with certain materials and 3D printers remain expensive, but costs have been falling. According to The Economist: "It is already competitive with plastic injection-moulding for runs of around [up to] 1,000 items." The technology, which allows for mass customization, gives people a say in the design of their favorite products - The Economist uses the example of cellphone cases, customized by a company named Digital Forming. The briefing has many other examples of companies using 3D printing.
- Two quotes I found interesting: "Some in the industry believe that the effect of 3D printing on manufacturing will be analogous to that of the inkjet printer on document printing" and "The threat to [DHL]'s business is clear: why would a company airfreight an urgently needed spare part from abroad when it could print one where it is required?"
- The articles also make very interesting points regarding intellectual property and what 3D printers will mean for imitators.
Another excellent article is "3D printing spurs a manufacturing revolution" in the New York Times back in September - using prosthetic body parts as its main example.
John Hunter at the Curious Cat blog posted a fun video about a ten-year-old discussing 3D printers. He also has several posts discussing the technology, especially "3D printing is here". In addition, YouTube has many videos demonstrating the 3D printing process. You can also skim through Wikipedia's 3D printing page. Now might be a good time for all of us to learn AutoCAD.