Birth of the manufacturing natives

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Ciaran McGuinness, Senior Producer, London

Would you be interested in getting a 3D model of your unborn baby to take home from the hospital after the first scan? If your first response was “ugh”, you’re not alone, but regardless the option is now there and it likely won’t be very long before this is the norm. Just as commonplace as 3D printing (otherwise known as rapid prototyping) will be. Out-there examples include implants, human kidneys, medicine, jumbo jets, cars, and the even more far-fetched, food. Yes, this means we’re now in the realm of Star Trek. NASA has recently provided funding to the tune of $125,000 to allow Systems & Materials Research Corporation to look into 3D cooked pizza.

These seemingly crazy ideas are real. So it’s not totally inconceivable that in the not too distant future a 3D printer, by then called ‘replicators’, will be in every home.

Stepping back a few years. The current 3D manufacturing process you may already be familiar with is based on a printing process called fused deposition modeling (FDM). These printers are fairly prevalent, and you may have seen the plastic models they output, and you’re probably not yet that inspired.

What’s interesting about FDM 3D printers is, when patents related to this printing process expired, the prices of these 3D printers fell. This is what helped bring the current breed of 3D consumer printers into hobbyist homes today.

Similarly, in February a number of patents related to a different 3D printing process called laser sintering will expire. Laser sintering allows a far higher fidelity prototype to be created than the current consumer grade FDM 3D printers.

Those in the know say this means China, the world’s current manufacturing powerhouse, will start shipping affordable, next-generation, manufacturing-grade 3D desktop printers to anyone who wants and can afford one. Thus, it’s conceivable that within a few years anyone could model, print and finish (thus fully product-cycle manufacture) any object they want, from the comfort of their own home.

What’s next?

It’s not a stretch to say that the future will be defined by 3D replication and copyright infringement on a scale never seen before. A new era – one characterised by disrupted industrial engineering and localised manufacturing – is approaching where in a matter of minutes any 3D object can be reproduced from home. Radical changes perhaps, but also not too dissimilar to the impact the Internet has had on our generation today.

We know that by 2023 everyone under the age of 27 in businesses will be a digital native. The question is now, what year will the manufacturing natives be born? Perhaps it will be that first generation of children, whose parents have a 3D fetus on their mantelpiece.

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