Conversation: The Future of 3D Printing

MIN READAug 6, 2015 | 13:18 GMT

Ben Sheen: Hello and thank you for joining us. My name is Ben Sheen, I'm a managing editor here at Stratfor, and here with me today in studio, we've got Science and Technology Analyst Rebecca Keller, who'll be talking about additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing. So Becca, when you think of 3D printing, what comes into your head immediately?

Rebecca Keller: That the term 3D printing sort of makes people think of a traditional printer, and that's not what the process is. It's additive manufacturing, so if you think of traditional manufacturing processes as subtractive, it's a little bit easier to think about what additive manufacturing actually means. So it's building the part or the toy or the device layer by layer by layer; there are a lot of ways to do it, there are different methods, but that's the essential thing: You're building it up versus breaking it down as you would in a mold or in the traditional kind of process.

Ben: Now that technology has been around for at least a couple of decades, but it's only really in the last few years we've seen some major breakthroughs. What sort of materials or processes are we seeing now?

Rebecca: So the research and the technology have definitely been accelerating over recent years, and some of that has to do with the original patents expiring. So that has helped bring along some innovation as well. But we see plastics, which were the first material, metal, ceramics, the Chinese are working with bone. There's a lot of different kinds of materials that are being used.

Ben: And you mentioned an interesting thing there is that one of the purposes of additive manufacturing, you can create these very complex internal structures. When you look at the honeycomb structure of a bone, that's really hard to replicate traditionally. What are some of the limitations we're actually seeing in the industry at the moment?

Rebecca: So the limitations right now the big ones are speed. It actually takes a really long time, comparatively, to make a lot of these products. Cost. We have seen the cost come down, especially since patents have expired, but that's on consumer goods; the consumer printers for toys that look like your child or you know personalized consumer goods. And then we're also looking at repeatability. You're looking at, you make one thing, you make it personalized, that's great. But if you wanted to make it like a traditional manufacturing process, ensuring the repeatability of the product is also important.

Ben: Especially for heavy industry. When you look at actually the scale at which you'd need to manufacture on, do you think we're moving toward something like a Moore's law for 3D printing, where you need to consider time, size, scale to build a building will take you a ridiculous amount of time.

Rebecca: I'm not sure we'll ever make it to Moore's law. Buildings are interesting. Wood is also one of the materials used for printing. But I do think that speed will decrease, will get faster. I do think that the cost will continue to come down. But I'm not sure that it will ever replace traditional manufacturing; I'm not sure that it will ever get to that point. It's a really important technology for niche markets. It's important for the aerospace industry, for the auto industry, for the medical industry. There's lots of industries that can use it, but it's not necessarily going to replace the bulk manufacturing process at this point, or even in the near future.

Ben: Who are the global leaders at the moment in the technology?

Rebecca: The U.S. is one of the global leaders, and it has been since the beginning. It's one of the innovators. But we're also seeing a lot of investment from the U.K., from Germany. China has pledged hundreds of billions of dollars into the process. Singapore is an interesting case, which is also putting a lot of government funds towards research and development of the technology. So we're seeing the scope of the countries involved broaden moving forward.

Ben: So what do you think right now are the next steps we're going to see in terms of the evolution, development, and expansion of 3D printing?

Rebecca: Next steps… so I think new materials. I think that's a big one, especially in the medical fields. I think that increasing the speed is going to be important. We saw a study come out a couple of months ago from the University of North Carolina that increased the speed between 25 to 100 times using a new process. So we're definitely looking at seeing increased speeds. With more patents expiring, we could see new methods of 3D printingdecrease in cost, the same way we saw the plastics consumer goods printing method decrease in cost in the past years. So we will see a decrease in cost as well.

Ben: There's certainly a lot on the horizon that we can anticipate moving forward then.

Rebecca: Absolutely

Ben: Brilliant. Well Becca thank you so much for joining us here today. For more on this Science-related topic and many more, please continue to read

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