3D printing – the only way is up

It was back in the early 1990’s at an IMI Ink Jet Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts that a couple of young students talked to me about work they were doing at MIT Labs. This involved jetting an adhesive in a pattern onto a powder bed. After each layer had been imaged a further layer of powder was spread across the bed and imaged, and so on. Eventually you could blow away the loose powder, revealing a 3D object. I wished I’d accepted the invitation to take a look at it now!

The MIT 3D printing process, ink jetting adhesive on to a powder
The MIT 3D printing process, ink jetting adhesive on to a powder

Since that time 3D printing has changed from being a novelty process to a major industry. It is still very much in its infancy in terms of the scale of production and the exploration of what it can do. It has become an easy source for media articles, with the most outlandish claims at times. The frenzy has grown so much that I read a story last year in a 3D printing magazine entitled “How to hype your 3D technology”! Many expect it to lead to a new industrial revolution, transforming the way we develop and manufacture products, in the same way that manufacturing changed from hand production to machines 250 years ago.

There are many different 3D printing technologies, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. At present no one technology can satisfy a broad range of requirements, so normally you select the best process for a specific application. In many cases the restriction concerns the materials that can be used. For instance some just work with a particular polymer, others with metals, rubbers or ceramics.

Autodesk aims to become the 3D printing industries ‘Android’

Many of the fundamental patents for the different processes have now lapsed, which has led to a broadening of the industry. On May 14, 2014 Autodesk, the leader in 3D design and modelling software, announced plans to launch its own 3D printer. But perhaps even more significantly it will allow others to make their own versions of the printer or they can use Autodesk’s Spark software to drive their own designs. This business model is expected to drive up the numbers of 3D printers, just like Google have grown the smartphone market using their Android operating system.

Estimates vary as to how big 3D printing currently is, but it is at least $2B and growing fast. Therefore a lot of companies are exploring how to engage with this fast growing industry. There are a great number of opportunities, from building new processes to developing new materials.

So how do you begin to explore the wide range of process, materials and capabilities 3D ink jet printing has to offer? One way is to attend the 3D Ink Jet Printing course, part of IMI Europe’s Summer School, June 16-20 in Milan. Dr Alan Hudd of Alchemie Technology, an expert in ink jet functional materials, will describe the processes, applications and markets for 3D printing, and then explore in depth the functional materials that can be used. The course concludes by describing the processes and issues relating to new 3D printing applications.