Is 3D printing really going to make a difference to anything?

You would need to have been on another planet not to be aware that ‘3D printing’ has become a much-hyped technology: just type it in to Google and  be staggered by the mind-boggling scale and diversity of results you get. Underpinning this frenzy of interest is a technology that was developed 30 years ago. The label 3D printing is now used to describe several different technologies applied in a wide range of areas (for a summary of what 3D printing encompasses, this podcast may be useful).

(c) Institute for Manufacturing

At the Institute for Manufacturing, we have a 3D printing lab designed to support various student design project activities. Taking visitors around this lab, there seems to be a common cycle of reactions:

  • Excitement: The first response of almost everyone is “Oh wow! These things are real!”, “What can they do?”, and “How do they work?”
  • Disappointment:  Next comes “So these only make little plastic things?”, “These are really slow”, and “Why is everyone so excited about this?”
  • Amazement: When we describe some of the current applications (in sectors such as aerospace, dentistry and automotive), and attempt to paint a picture of the possible future uses of 3D printing (such as pharmaceuticals, spare parts, and food), the sense of wonder returns.

But it is good to imprint powerful, tangible examples in our visitor’s minds. I find that showing them a few videos relating to one theme – 3D printing applied now in healthcare –  usually do the trick:

  • Project Daniel – using low-end 3D printers to support local communities in South Sudan in making low-cost upper-body prostheses.
  • 3D printed vertebrae – a 12-year-old boy suffering from bone cancer became the first recipient of 3D printed artificial vertebra replacement.
  • 3D printed ‘magic arms’ – development of a 3D printed durable custom exoskeleton for a child with arthrogryposis.

However, looking beyond sector and product application areas, one of the most interesting issues is the potential impact that 3D printing may have on education, in terms of what skills are needed for the future, changing the way in which we learn, and transforming our perceptions of what engineering actually is.  This will be the subject of the next post on this blog. In the meantime, if you’d like to keep up with trends in 3D printing, follow