3-D Printing and the Future of Stuff

April 2013

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Have you ever searched for a lamp but just couldn’t find the right one, or had to wait months for a spare part for a household device that is no longer produced? These frustrations could soon be a thing of the past. High performance 3-D printing or additive manufacturing technologies, first developed in laboratories some 30 years ago, are now available for consumers.

One of the most exciting innovations to emerge in recent times, 3-D printing offers the realistic possibility that anyone, anywhere in the world can produce any object they need on demand. For some, 3-D printing marks the “democratization” of manufacturing, a new age of mass personalization that promises to boost innovation, foster more efficient use of resources and transform the way things are produced. Some have gone so far as to characterize it as the “Third Industrial Revolution”. This article considers the technology’s expanding range of applications and its huge innovation potential. It also reflects on why it is that intellectual property (IP) policymakers need to watch this space.

What is 3-D printing?

Gaudi Chair designed by Dutch
designer Bram Geenen. 3-D printing
technology makes it possible to create
geometrically complex objects that
cannot be made in any other way.
(Photo: 3-D Systems Corp)

3-D printing, alias additive manufacturing (AM) or direct digital manufacturing (DDM), makes it possible to create an object by creating a digital file and printing it at home or sending it to one of a growing number of online 3-D print services. In the 3-D printing process, this digital blueprint, created using computer-aided design (CAD) software, is sliced into 2-dimensional representations which are fed through to a printer that starts building up an object layer by layer from its base. Layers of material (in liquid, powder or filament form) are deposited onto a “build area” and fused together. This additive process, which minimizes waste because it only uses the amount of material required to make the component (and its support), is distinct from traditional “subtractive” manufacturing processes where materials are cut away to produce a desired form.

A number of 3-D printing techniques exist. The first commercial 3-D print technology, stereolithography, was invented in 1984 by Charles Hull. Several other techniques have emerged since, including fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS) and PolyJet Matrix. Some of these techniques involve melting or softening layers of material, others involve binding powdered materials and yet others involve jetting or selectively-hardening liquid materials.

The process of “growing” objects layer by layer also means that, with 3-D printing, it is possible to create more intricate and complex structures than can be done using traditional manufacturing techniques.

Current applications

3-D printing was originally developed for rapid prototyping purposes, making one or two physical samples. It allowed designers to identify and correct design flaws quickly and cheaply, thereby speeding up the product development process and minimizing commercial risks. According to business analysts CSC, prototyping remains the largest commercial application of the technology, accounting for some 70 percent of the 3-D print market.

However, improvements in the technology’s accuracy and speed, as well as in the quality of materials used for printing, have prompted some commercial sectors to move beyond the use of 3-D printing in their research and development (R&D) labs and incorporate it into their manufacturing strategy.

Reef, a wall and ceiling lamp
designed by Tanja Soeter for
FOC, resembles a coral reef.
(Photo: 3-D Systems Corp)

The technology is already widely used to make jewelry and other bespoke fashion items, in dental laboratories to produce crowns, bridges and implants, as well as in the production of hearing aids and prostheses, offering patients a perfect fit. 3-D printing is particularly suited to low-volume, short production runs offering companies a more flexible, cost-effective and speedy alternative to traditional mass production methods.

Use in the automotive and aerospace sectors

The technology is also being used to make complex parts for the electronics, automotive and aerospace industries. Major car manufacturers, such as GM, Jaguar Land Rover and Audi, have been 3-D printing auto parts for a number of years. Leading aircraft manufacturers Airbus (part of the European aerospace and defense group, (EADS)) and Boeing are using it to improve the performance of their aircraft and reduce maintenance and fuel costs. Boeing uses 3-D printing to produce environmental control ducting (ECD) for its 787 aircraft. ECD traditionally requires the production and assembly of up to 20 different parts, but can be 3-D printed in one piece. "Additive Layer Manufacturing is truly game-changing technology that has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing for the 21st century. It can be used for a wide variety of materials from metals to plastics - including composites - and is faster and more efficient to produce. It uses less raw material and produces parts which are lighter, more complex and stronger: in short, this is a leaner and greener technology which can be used in many sectors from aviation through to consumer goods," explains Dr. Jean J. Botti, Chief Technical Officer at EADS.

3-D-printed aircraft components are 65 percent lighter but as strong as traditional machined parts, representing huge savings and reduced carbon emissions. For every 1 kilogram reduction in weight, airlines save around US$35,000 in fuel costs over an aircraft’s life.

Aircraft designers already have in their sights the 3-D printing of a whole plane by 2050. To this end, Airbus recently joined ranks with a South African aviation company and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) (see http://tinyurl.com/a9mx6l3) to explore the application of titanium-powder-based additive layer manufacturing for building large-scale, complex aircraft components. Although expensive, titanium is light, strong and durable and ideally suited to aircraft manufacture. In traditional manufacturing, it wears machine tools heavily as it hardens when cut. Such problems are eliminated in a 3-D print environment.

3-D printing in space

NASA engineers are 3-D printing parts, which are structurally stronger and more reliable than conventionally crafted parts, for its space launch system. The Mars Rover comprises some 70 3-D-printed custom parts. Scientists are also exploring the use of 3-D printers at the International Space Station to make spare parts on the spot. What once was the province of science fiction has now become a reality.

Use in medicine

Medicine is perhaps one of the most exciting areas of application. Beyond the use of 3-D printing in producing prosthetics and hearing aids, it is being deployed to treat challenging medical conditions, and to advance medical research, including in the area of regenerative medicine. The breakthroughs in this area are rapid and awe-inspiring.

Two-year-old Emma was born with a rare
congenital disorder known as arthrogryposis
which means she does not have the strength
to lift her own arms. Using 3-D printing technologies,
researchers at Delaware hospital in the US
developed a durable custom exoskeleton with the
tiny, lightweight parts she needsto be able to
move her arms. Emma calls her prosthesis
her “magic arms”. (Photo: Stratasys Corp.)

In 2002, surgeons at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Mattel Children’s Hospital used 3-D-printed models to plan complex surgery to separate Guatemalan conjoined twins Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus Quiej-Alvarez. Using these models, the operation took 22 hours instead of the 97 hours normally required for similar procedures.

In 2011, Surgeons at the University Hospital in Ghent, Belgium, successfully performed one of the most complex facial transplants to date with extensive use of 3D printing to plan and perform the procedure. Anatomical models and patient specific guides were 3D printed for use before and during the procedure (see http://tinyurl.com/cd2hz2n).

In February 2012, with the help of a 3-D printer, doctors and engineers at Hasselt University successfully performed the world’s first patient-specific prosthetic jaw transplant for an 83-year-old woman suffering from a chronic bone disease. “You can build parts that you can’t create using any other technique,” notes Ruben Wauthle, medical applications engineer at Layerwise, the company that built the implant, in a BBC report. “For example, you can print porous titanium structures which allow bone in-growth and allow a better fixation of the implant, giving it a longer lifetime.”

World’s first 3-D bioprinter

3-D printing technology is even being used to grow new human tissue. In 2009, Organovo, in partnership with Invetech, produced the world’s first bioprinter. The MMX™ “takes primary or other human cells and shapes them into 3-D tissues for medical research, including drug development and therapeutic applications”. In late 2010 Organovo announced it had generated the first bioprinted blood vessels.

3-D printing enters the public arena

Beyond these fascinating commercial applications, 3-D printing is starting to filter into the mainstream. “The era of desktop manufacture beckons,” notes former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson, in his recent book Makers.

Although 3-D printers are not yet a standard part of home-computing equipment, the latest generation of devices, such as Cube® by 3D Systems, the Cubex™ or Makerbot’s Replicator™2X - which retail for between one and three thousand US dollars - are bringing the possibility of home manufacturing one step closer to reality.

A study by Wohlers Associates anticipates that the sale of additive manufacturing products and services will reach US$3.7 billion by 2015, rising to over US$6.5 billion by 2019.

Open source movement fuels uptake

The uptake and development of 3-D printing is also being fuelled by a dynamic open source movement. For example, the RepRap (short for replicating rapid prototyper) initiative, founded by Dr. Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath, UK, in 2005, has produced a low-cost 3-D printer capable of printing most of its own components. The project’s designs, including the machine itself, are released under a free software license (the GNU General Public License).

The “Airbike, unveiled in 2011 by EADS is the world’s
first 3-D printed bicycle. Made from nylon powder,
the Airbike is strong enough to replace steel
or aluminum and does not require conventional
maintenance or assembly. It is “grown” from
powder, allowing complete sections to be built
as one piece; the wheels, bearings and axle being
incorporated within the growing process and built
at the same time. (Photo: EADS)

One of the initiative’s aims is to put low-cost desktop manufacturing systems in the hands of individuals anywhere in the world, so they can build complex products themselves with very little capital investment. A RepRap kit costs around US$500. As the RepRap printer design is open, anyone can modify or improve, manufacture and sell it. Business analysts CSC note that the “rate of innovation of the RepRap and its derivatives is accelerating faster than equivalent commercial 3-D printers.”

Similarly, the Fab@Home project aims “at bringing personal fabrication to your home.” The community includes hundreds of engineers, inventors, artists, students and hobbyists – “both those that can develop the technology and those who simply want to use it to make unique items,” the project’s website explains.

Emergence of online 3-D print platforms

A growing number of online 3-D print platforms, such as Makerbot’s Thingiverse make it possible for individuals to upload and share their designs or download designs for fabrication.

For those without direct access to 3-D print technology, a growing range of online services are available. Shapeways and Sculpteo, for example, offer platforms for individuals to share their ideas and make them real by providing access to cutting-edge 3-D software and printers. As of August 2012, Shapeways boasted nearly 7,000 shops and over 16,000 members, who had printed over a million products.

A suite of software applications, such as Autodesk 123D, is also available for people to design and customize objects on their home computers.

A new era of mass personalization

3-D printing is heralding a new era of mass personalization. In January 2013, Nokia announced it is making the 3-D printable files of its Lumia 820 phone case available to customers, so they can create their own designs and print them on any 3-D printer. While, as MIT Professor Neil Gershinghoff notes, consumers are unlikely to print what is readily available in the stores, when it comes to making personalized objects, gadgets or irreplaceable parts, the scope for 3-D printing applications is limitless.

Unleashing innovative potential

3D printing technologies offer a new way to
produce customized objects, quickly, cheaply
and with less waste. (Photo: 3-D Systems Corp)

To reach its full potential as a manufacturing technology, a number of technical barriers still need to be overcome, particularly in relation to the cost of materials, quality of outputs, size limitations and throughput capacity. That said, as noted by the consultancy firm CSC, “3-D printing is providing a platform for collaboration that is accelerating innovation and disruption of the material world, just as the Internet fostered collaboration, innovation and disruption in the digital world.”

Chris Anderson explains, “when a technology becomes desktop, it doesn’t just get cheaper, smaller, better, more ubiquitous, what happens is it gets used in different ways.” It becomes “a vector for ideas which are turned into things,… companies,… movements and that moment is right now.”

The so-called “democratization” of manufacturing that 3-D printing promises has huge potential to unleash the creativity of the masses and foster economic growth.

Traditional manufacturing requires high levels of capital investment and large-volume product runs. By significantly reducing capital outlay, costs and commercial risks, 3-D printing can make it easier for anyone to be part of the manufacturing process and test their ideas.

The full implications of its widespread adoption are as yet unclear, but by making “manufacturing on demand” a realistic possibility, the uptake of 3-D printing could transform the global manufacturing and business landscape. It can reduce the need to carry inventory, and slash warehousing and transport costs, simplify supply chains and significantly reduce the carbon footprint of manufacturing.

IP challenges

3-D printing raises a number of regulatory challenges including in relation to intellectual property protection.

Just as the digitization of creative content has forced change within the creative industries and fuelled tensions around existing copyright law, similar debates are likely to emerge in relation to 3-D printing. Given the global scale of manufacturing, however, the stakes in this debate may be even greater.

3-D printing is both a manufacturing and a digital technology and as such it makes the unauthorized copying of objects easier. Like other digital files, CAD blueprints are easy to copy and difficult to track. Copying is also made easier by the availability of low-cost 3-D scanners, which enable anyone to scan an off-the-shelf product, create a 3-D blueprint and distribute it online.

As noted in a study by the Big Innovation Centre the ability to copy physical products easily and cheaply could reduce incentives for businesses to invest in R&D and design. On the other hand, the continued evolution of the use of the technology will depend on openness and an ability to combine designs. The need to balance these interests - ensuring that incentives and rewards are in place for those who invest in new ideas, without stifling innovation and openness in the use of online designs - will be a key challenge for IP policymakers going forward. Mechanisms that facilitate the licensing and legitimate sharing of design files will play a major role in meeting this challenge.

This brief review of some of the exciting applications for which 3-D printing is being used suggests that the “paradigm shift in manufacturing” that many refer to is well under way. The implications of the continued evolution and uptake of 3-D printing technologies are far-reaching and promise to have a radical impact on the way things are made and business is done. The last 20 years of technological progress have been captivating, but the next may be even more thrilling.

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