3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of using a computer-controlled machine to add successive layers of material to create a three-dimensional object
What We Learned from the Dialogue
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of using a computer- controlled machine to add successive layers of material to create a three- dimensional object. In recent years, 3D printers have been experimentally used to produce the following:
Price has become one of the leading factors in their growing popularity.
Since 2010, the cost of 3D printers has decreased dramatically, driven by academic, hacker and do-it-yourself enthusiasts, with machines that used to cost $20,000 USD now available for less than $1,000 USD. Many of the 3D printing designs are also open source, which has created a vibrant ecosystem of related or derivative 3D printers, designs and supporting technologies. These relatively sophisticated tools are being hacked, redesigned using e-waste and developed at more affordable price points by West African entrepreneurs, for example.
While the cost of 3D printers is dropping quickly, and successive 3D printer designs are lowering the skills needed, today, they still require advanced technology skills to operate correctly. The potential component to be printed must first be designed using a computer-aided manufacturing process, the printer must be programmed to follow this design, and the correct raw material must be purchased and fed into the printer. Today’s commercial 3D printers are also rather inefficient for high-volume manufacturing and better suited for rapid prototyping of items that are highly customized, such as prosthetic limbs or test units of products that then can be mass-produced using traditional manufacturing processes. In the near future, however, 3D printers are predicted to become faster and more efficient, challenge the traditional supply chains, and put the designing and manufacturing power into the hands of the consumer.
3D printing has the potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing processes
by allowing ordinary people to produce or customize physical objects. The disruption potential is analogous to the way digital audio files have disrupted the traditional music business, however, without many of the intellectual property or copyright issues as the legal framework for making copies of physical items is less regulated than that of music. Like the early days of the music industry disruption, there is already a healthy ecosystem of hobbyists at the community level that are innovating new 3D printing uses. Often congregating in community places called maker spaces, they are evangelizing the use of 3D printing in education and community development. They are also becoming income-generating assets for entrepreneurs, and communities are sharing the devices like others might share cars.
3D printers were only moderately attractive as resilience-strengthening solutions to community members and experts engaged in the dialogue. The most interesting use cases for 3D printers, according to dialogue participants, included the production of medical supplies, disaster-resistant structures and building materials; replacement of important items such as heirlooms, cosmetic and functional modifications to their homes; and making spare parts to maintain the other emerging technologies. Across the globe, there was great interest in adding a collection of humanitarian relief items to the digital library of open source designs for 3D printers as well.
Communities also acknowledged the potential of 3D printing to generate income for the users, which lowers the threshold for individual access. However, they also had concerns 3D printers may disrupt the existing local manufacturing economy, potentially resulting in job losses for community members.
In addition to speed and economic impacts, participants noted several other issues that may prevent 3D printer adoption unless resolved in the next generation of products. Today’s machines are difficult to operate outdoors, especially when exposed to water, dust and winds, and they require regular maintenance and significant power. Participants also questioned the waste generated by the printers as well as their potential toxicity. These barriers must be resolved before their benefits can be fully realized by communities in disaster-prone, urban settings.