3d printing – a new hope?

If you haven’t heard of 3D printing yet then you’re in for a world of amazement!

Without getting into technicalities, 3D printing is basically a “process of making a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model”. That means anything you can design using 3D software can, in theory, be printed out as a physical object!

Think of Michelangelo chipping away at a block of marble to bring forth one of his famous sculptures the old-fashioned way. With 3D printing, the printer reproduces a digital model by adding layer upon of layer of material until the 3D product is achieved:

While revolutionary, the technology is far from new. First developed in 1984, the 3D printer has rapidly grown in commercial viability this millennium. In fact, it has seen such a large growth in demand that there are now really affordable printers, even for retail and consumer use!

 Feared for its potential disruptive effects on the manufacturing industry and traditional supply chains, 3D printing has the potential to quite literally change the world.

The first big implication is that more goods will be manufactured closer to (or at) their point of purchase or consumption.

Offshore production that had previously relied on economies of scale and efficiency will be more than offset by eliminating shipping and inventory costs. This means that while cars and spare parts are currently made in just a few hundred factories worldwide, they may one day be 3D-printed at local garages, repair shops, or local dealerships.

This also means that China, which has thus far made its fortunes on cheap labour and outsourced manufacturing contracts from mature economies around the world, would lose its crucial competitive advantage.

Not only would goods be cheaper because they take less time and go through less hands to reach consumers, they would also be infinitely more customisable; designing an object based on personal preferences or usages wouldn’t require hardware alteration or retooling — only minor software tweaks or graphic remodelling.

This definitely spells a new age of creativity!

 The applications of 3D printing are enormous and widespread.

Applicable in architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, civil engineering, dental and medical industries, biotech (human tissue replacement), fashion, footwear, jewellery, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, food and countless other fields, it seems only limited by the imagination:

printing 1

Bicycles made of nylon powder…

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Jaw bones, hip replacements, stem cells…

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Musical instruments…

printing 4

Clothes…

printing 5

Hi-fi equipment…

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Cars

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Buildings

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Moon bases

The possibilities are apparently endless! Even working gun parts have already been printed of plastic and assembled in less than 2 hours at home!

This is where governments and law-makers are getting worried; if anyone can craft a deadly weapon with only a computer and little more than a thousand dollars, how can such creations be controlled?

Think about it: people living in countries where strict laws don’t allow guns to be carried can just make their own. Weapons made of plastic will escape detection by metal detectors at security checkpoints. Bans and laws will be ineffective, as anyone can share the weapon’s blueprints on the internet.

If you happen to think that’s not so alarming, maybe other criminal uses for 3D printing will tickle your fancy: car keys, house keys, access cards, ATM card readers, you name it, they can all be printed and replicated!

Some MIT students have even pronounced the death of physical high-security keys with a programming code they created.

It seems that just like with any other nascent technology, politicians, governments, and policy-makers will have to try to adapt as fast as they can.

 So what’s in it for Singapore, you may ask.

Some people are already looking into printing HDB flats in the future while others are concerned about the necessary legislative framework for containing such fluid technology.

It seems that 3D printing is already upon us and forms an inevitable part of the not-too-distant future. The best thing for the country to do seems to be to embrace, harness, and capitalise on it as an early mover.

While doing so, public policy and legislation will have to also quickly address the numerous ethical, social, and economic implications that 3D printing brings with it.

On the ground level, businesses should start looking at how to adapt their processes and products with this technology such that they will not only remain competitive, but come out on top.

After all, with innovation comes opportunity. And while a tech revolution like 3D printing can topple giants, we are after all a tiny red dot that thrives on small-scale innovations in small spaces.

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Najib A.

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