3D printing started out as a gargantuan technology that took up a larger footprint than most offices could accommodate. In the early iterations, it was the stuff of science fiction, where machines could generate everything from weaponry to human clones.
The realities of 3D printing now seem a bit more mundane. Today it is typically viewed as a niche technology that has its place only in the manufacturing, design and architectural realms.
But with the technology price hitting mainstream (basic units sell for about $3,000), and the growing availability of cost-effective 3D printing services, David Didur, design director and founding partner for Think2Thing, believes that 3D printing has evolved to the point where it can play a key role in enterprise settings beyond the “conventional” ones.
Here are some of Didur’s thoughts on 3D evolution and on possible applications beyond core markets for the technology today.
What is Think2Thing?
We do 3D scanning, computer modelling and printing to help organizations with product development, engineering and visualization. Think2Thing is nestled in the sphere of Ryerson University, which is an interesting partner because it provides us with access to researchers. This partnership also allows us to cross many disciplines, including aerospace, fashion, industrial design among others. Outside of Ryerson, we work in areas such as industrial design for organizations, for everything ranging from window blinds or new razor shaving systems to cardiology and aerospace applications.
How long has 3D printing been a reality?
The first printers were introduced 30 years ago. Over the years, the biggest evolution has been in material technology, which has changed from the wire that spits out goo to build shapes layer by layer, to high level processes that build objects in a liquid or powder layer by layer and solidify it with a laser beam.
What do you see as the most important role for 3D printing?
One of the great strengths of the technology is that it brings the power of visualization. Being able to produce something in 3D eliminates the issue of interpretive problems, because every nuance is there during the decision-making process.
It has extraordinary ability to create three-dimensional objects for presentation without the organization having to outsource, which can take weeks and cost a lot. Even with that support, items often comes back wrong and require adjustments, which can add even more time and cost to a product development budget.
We’ve seen it in areas such as fashion design and manufacturing. But how would enterprise in general benefit?
Take the example of a producer of office furniture that has a $10 million contract on the line. The usual approach would be to walk customers through whiteboards and 3D illustrations. Now let’s say the company pulls out a quarter-scale model for presentation onto the boardroom table. Selling the idea can be made much faster because everyone understands exactly what theyre looking at down to the finest details. In fact, that scenario was one of the first times we realized 3D printing had powerful applications for businesses of any size.
What do businesses need to understand about 3D printing?
They have to understand that these are new tools, and as with any tools it’s not simply a matter of pressing print. The important thing is how they are applied to produce the best results. You have to develop strong internal practices in order to do that. There is a lot of accumulated knowledge required in terms of the technology, materials and processes involved in using 3D well.
What is the most compelling advantage from your perspective?
Time and cost savings. 3D printing can speed up the entire product development process. Fast prototyping of concepts allows you to tweak things and do iterations. Instead of the exercise costing you $20,000, you can do it for $300 per iteration and get to the same place more quickly. And you can respond to changes in a matter of days versus weeks or months. That’s especially helpful for smaller businesses, because it allows them to compete with larger entities and respond to RFPs with much reduced cost. It’s also useful for anyone producing small quantities, such as a limited edition product for a branding project.
How significant is this in the grand scheme of things?
It’s a huge breakthrough for IT, whether you’re in digital arts, manufacturing, healthcare or other sectors. 3D technologies as a whole are about the holy trinity of scanning, computer modelling and printing. Scanning offers the ability to capture objects or environments that exist; scanners take that and turn it into information.
A poetic way to describe the process is that we’re capturing atoms. By scanning we’re translating atoms into bits, then manipulating those and combining them with other objects, and turning output back into atoms for printing. I often compare it to the music industry, when computers started to allow anyone to record and sample music, as well as change beats and stretch phrases. That capability has changed the music industry. The same is happening in the visual world. We’re already seeing major shifts in the gaming and film industries as a result of 3D modeling and printing.
Are there any other benefits that enterprises would consider?
Bringing 3D production in-house today would require minimal infrastructure change. Take our operation for example. We are right downtown in an office building making objects that would normally have been relegated to the outskirts in industrial park malls.
That convenience represents a significant opportunity for culture and process change within an existing building or office setting. An enterprise could even create its own Centre of Excellence at a relatively affordable cost.
The opportunity to understand the side effects of realizing opportunities within an existing environment has already been demonstrated in the IT world. That’s in fact how Silicon Valley became a centre of activity.
When you are in a position to create larger communities, the economic forces become very significant. And it can all be done in a traditional office space.
For more information on 3D printing, check out this link: http://3dprinting.com/what-is-3d-printing/