Teacher and futurist Julian Snape reflects on the progress of 3D printing, and how disruptive the technology may become to the automotive and construction industries in the very near future.
3D Printing has come a long way in an alarmingly short space of time. Although 3D printing has existed in some form of prototyping since the 1980’s, the direct printing of items in plastics, metals, ceramics, resins and even living tissue have only been available at affordable prices since the mid 2000’s. Of course, ‘affordable prices’ is a relative term. For home users it means they can buy an Up! Mini 3D Printer from a well known electronics outlet for around £500 or, if sufficiently practically minded, it’s been possible for several years to buy a kit of parts online and make one of the increasingly sophisticated open source RepRap printers pioneered by Dr Adrian Bower at the University of Bath. (Indeed if you really want to get into 3D Printing from the bottom up I’d suggest this is a very good way of doing so).
However, it’s in the next five years I think we will begin to see some of the real disruptive possibilities of 3D Printing in the headlines, and probably in our pockets too! 3D printing has increasingly made the headlines with stories of 3D Printed prosthetic arms and hands for children, legs for dogs and even a 3D Printer wrench sent into space via an STL file and printed out in zero G on a 3D Printer aboard the International Space station. 3D Printing is truly making its way into the consciousness of the mainstream, but we are yet to see any significant disruption from 3D Printing – unless of course you consider a personalised plastic cover for your mobile phone something earth-shattering?
Where does the real disruptive power of 3D Printing reside? Well, I suggest it may come soon from two major sectors. These are: 3D Printed vehicles and 3D Printed buildings.
Local Motors are currently setting up 3D Car Printing factories in the USA (with plans for worldwide sites) to produce 3D Printed automobiles of open source bespoke design in record-breaking time. During the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, Illinois, Local Motors printed the Strati electric car in a total of 44hrs. The car became mobile after a further three days of finishing. True, the 3D printed parts were mainly used for the body of the car. The electric motor and other metal, glass and rubber parts were all sourced in the usual way. But it’s a great start and they already have plans to develop 3D Printing processes for most of the other vehicular elements.
The Chinese company WinSun has also proven the 3D Printing of prefabricated buildings by printing ten simple structures in a day at a cost of £3,200 each. Since then, they have printed larger multi-floored buildings including villas and blocks of flats. A 1,100 sq ft villa took just eight people one month to build at a total cost of £105,000, and this is of course only the beginning. There are projects underway in the USA, Spain and the UK to bring 3D Printed buildings to the commercial and domestic sector within the next few years.
Why are these two examples of 3D Printing going to be so disruptive? Well, just think of the largest expenses of most peoples lives – their house and their car. If production can both be speeded up and dramatically reduced in cost, as well as bespoke printed to a customers exact requirements, it will have a dramatic impact on the automotive and housing markets. With the potential of multimedia 3D Printing of plumbing, electrics and even glazing at the time of manufacture, what will happen to all the trades folk, the plumbers, carpenters, glaziers and electricians? What will the knock-on effect be for car showrooms and major car manufacturing plants when cars can be printed locally to a custom design in just a couple of days? And just what will happen to the market prices of conventionally built housing? Are we about to witness the burst of a new house price bubble? Or will the builders and architects of the future take the profit margins off first? These are all questions that will need serious attention within the next few years, as 3D disruption continues apace.