3D Printing Comes Of Age
3D Printing Comes Of Age
Readers have become blasé about news of 3D printing technology achieving new feats. But the report that a blind, expectant mother from Brazil “met” her yet to be born baby by touching a replica of the fetus has caused a sensation. The life-sized replica was made by a 3D printer using the ultrasound image that is routinely taken to examine pregnant women. Already, the additive technology, which puts layers of material like bubble jet printer prints image with ink dots, has been put to use in a variety of ways — from making birthday cakes to producing prosthetic parts and aircraft wings.
The versatility of the 3D printing technology has led some to predict that it would herald a third industrial revolution. So, I was encouraged to read that Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad, has become the first academic institution in India to introduce a course on 3D printing technology. It is about time.
The potential of this technology in unleashing creativity has created a buzz not unlike one generated by the PC. Some 5,000 US schools have bought 3D printers to introduce this technology. This summer, many public libraries in the US are going to open interactive spaces to introduce 3D printing technology to the public. Areas are being set up with computers and 3D printers, where volunteer specialists demonstrate how a design — of a cup, or a smartphone case — you can draw on the computer screen or borrow from the existing list of designs can become a real thing. Children are encouraged to bring their own dream design to turn it into reality. Hoping to expand market demand, the manufacturers of 3D printers have joined hands with libraries and philanthropists to create mini fabrication laboratories — fab labs. Some 250 libraries in the US have already created such interactive spaces.
Additive printing technology has been around for years, but the falling price and spread of digital literacy have created conditions for taking it to a different level. Ever since personal 3D printers costing around $1,000 went on sale, close to 100,000 have been sold. However, the narrow range of materials that an inexpensive 3D printer could use has limited its sales. However, businesses already see the opportunity the technology has opened up for decentralised and customised production. A courier company, UPS, now offers 3D printing services for its customers in 100 locations near large cities in the US. Customers electronically send their design specifications of a prototype to be “printed” into real objects before delivering to the recipients.
The US Postal Service, which has been struggling to survive the onslaught of competition like email and PDF files for delivery of printed material is looking at 3D printing as a possible saviour. A recent internal report of the postal service recommended that since customised production is a strong feature of 3D printing, businesses planning to deliver quickly to their customers may even partner with the postal service to set up printing on-site at postal facilities. Such distribution mechanisms would be even more attractive to makers of products living far away from where the consumers are.
Given India’s proven digital skill and millennia of expertise in creating beautiful objects, 3D printing technology provides a tremendous opening. With the launch of an IIT course teaching this technology, the first step has been taken to tap into this opportunity. Indian businesses hoping to take advantage of this new technology may take a leaf from their American counterparts and promote fab labs in order to spark the innovative spirit among the youth. The Modi government’s Make in India campaign can take off in myriad more ways than just on traditional factory floors.
Nayan Chanda is the editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online.