3D printing has become a popular topic recently in the news and online and many business owners may not be aware of the exciting possibilities of this technology. The truth is, 3D printing technology has been around since 1984 but it was not made commercially available until early 2010. Today, 3D technology’s price point has dropped to the point that it is now within reach of many small to medium sized businesses.
What is 3D Printing?
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process that allows a special printer controlled by a computer to create any three-dimensional object from a digital rendering. This is done using a process where successive layers of material are laid down in different shapes.
3D printer output is varied. Generally foam or plastics are used, but paper and even sheet metal can be used and the results can be pretty impressive. Typically, the process is used for prototyping and distributed manufacturing. Some of the more popular applications are found in the architecture, automotive, aerospace, military and engineering industries. 3D printing has also found a home in the medical and biotech industries as a means of developing and prototyping medical devices.
As further proof that 3D printing has arrived, 3D Systems Corp. a leader in the space agreed last year to acquire a portion of Xerox’s R&D division in Wilsonville Oregon. 3D Systems paid Xerox $32.5 million dollars in cash and the deal allows them to work directly out of the Xerox Hub.
The Dark Side of 3D Printing
While many people can see the benefits to society, some claim there is a dark side to 3D printing. The machines use heat or lasers to melt the plastic used when rendering and can use 50 to 100 times more electricity than the injection molding process. If the medium is metal, the energy used is hundreds of times greater than traditional casting. Along with increased energy use, there are potential health, legal and even ethical problems that need to be addressed before the industry can grow and mature.
As with any new technology, it’s easy to get swept up in the positive side of 3D printing. It opens a new world of possibilities for all industries but the potential societal, political, economic and environmental impacts need to be studied and addressed.
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