The future of 3D printing is bright and full of exciting promise. But the most intriguing scenario for this technology isn’t in the manufacture of objects we see every day—that will only be a small niche in the 3D-printing industry. Instead, 3D printing will realize its full potential when it enables people to innovate and create all new objects and devices in a one-touch process.
3D printing allows for distributed manufacturing—meaning products can be created on demand in a facility nearby. In the near future, this will allow consumers to purchase goods which fit their very specific needs. It will also have these goods printed and shipped in a matter of hours, as opposed to the weeks it can take to receive a custom item.
Furthermore, 3D printing will allow people to exchange their creative designs quickly and easily, from a new take on an everyday objects to an entirely new electronic device. The ability to create and share like never before is what really makes 3D printing the process of the future. While it has endless possibilities to improve the world around us, it’s still in the early stage of commercial development. Currently, 3D-printing technology allows people to print parts for a broken washing machine, granted the part that’s broken doesn’t need to withstand high force and can be made out of plastic. But within just five years, I foresee 3D printers capable of printing high-quality parts on-demand; and within 10 to 15 years, we will see at-home 3D printing for the majority of needs.
So what are some hurdles that need to be overcome to achieve these big feats? The two biggest problems are there are limits in production capabilities and 3D printers aren’t easy to use. But when 3D printing evolves into a simple-push button process, people will be able to go to a local store and use a 3D printer or use one at home to print useful items, as opposed to just models.
The way forward to overcome these problems is two-fold. The first is to incorporate advanced materials into thermoplastics used in 3D printing, allowing for functional 3D printing materials. The second is to develop a user-friendly 3D-printing ecosystem which makes the technology more accessible to non-engineers.
Moreover, for 3D printing to be used in commercial applications, the speed at which prints are completed must be improved upon, as well as the quality of prints themselves. For example, 3D prints currently have a sub-optimal quality to them when compared to products on store shelves. However, since many products are made solely out of plastic, if these two problems were solved, we would probably see its widespread use for producing both custom and generic objects. The applications of 3D printing can be further expanded with an improvement in available 3D-printing materials. A combination of functional materials with plastics within 3D prints would allow for the printing of operational devices.
The advancement of materials for 3D printing is essential to its future. Take graphene for example—a highly conductive nanomaterial—which when introduced to thermoplastics used in 3D printing, adds electrical conductivity to the final product. This is a major step forward because graphene enables us to make a number of applications through 3D printing, including capacitive touch sensors and circuitry. There are also a number of other advanced materials worth experimenting with for 3D printing, including MoS2 and boron nitride. Such materials can bring their own unique functionalities to 3D printing, which can prove useful for very specific applications. For instance, MoS2 has a high level of photoluminescence, which can be used in the creation of optoelectronics.
In addition to development of materials, one of the greatest challenge is in making one printer capable of printing a wide range of objects with several materials. Such a machine should be able to print a faux-wooden chess piece, as well as an operational device with some embedded electronics. The development of 3D printers capable of printing objects in more than just plastic will move the 3D-printing process forward. 3D printers are wonderfully disruptive already, but much innovation needs to occur for these devices to do more, print more and be used by everyday people who have no former experience in 3D printing.
This brings us to the next big challenge in 3D printing—the software. Today, it takes someone with some level of expertise in designing, as well as troubleshooting mechanical devices, to be successful with a 3D printer. However, in the future, troubleshooting a 3D printer will be a rare occasion and the software will be easy and quick to learn, much like desktop printing today. When that happens, at-home 3D printing will flourish.
3D printing is poised to make big breakthroughs in the way people create and acquire goods; and the industry is well on its way to overcoming its key challenges—improving the printers, advancing materials used in printing and improving the software that enables 3D printing. The good news is we are only 10 to 15 years away from achieving 3D printing’s full potential.