Following a disappointing mini-investment boom, the 3D printing market is finally back in the spotlight. Led by an ever-growing number of machines that allow anyone to print nearly any physical object they can imagine, the 3D printing market is set to defy expectations in the next up-coming years.
In the near future digitising real objects into 3D models will become as easy as taking a picture. Future versions of smartphones will also have integrated 3D scanners. No longer do products need to be the same, we can now tailor products to meet our individual needs at little or no extra cost.
Introducing 3D printing
3D printing uses a process known as additive manufacturing to create objects by building up layers of materials such as plastic or metal. The technology has been adopted in industry as a way to build prototypes, though it has not been widely used for production manufacturing. While certain media coverage may make you think otherwise, 3D printing is not just for those who call themselves a "maker". It's also for the hobbyist, crafter, tinkerer, technology enthusiast, and anyone else with a desire to create. Despite the numerous practical applications, including solving some real challenges, many people purchase a 3D printer simply for the fun of it.
Whether it is cookie cutters or other household items, school projects, replacement knobs for appliances, storage solutions, hobby items, or holiday decorations, the possibilities are only limited by one's imagination. Age is not a limiting factor as well. Indeed, kids in particular seem to love printing little figures of their favorite Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z character, or any other popular item by using 3D printers. Are we sitting on the edge of the Third Industrial Revolution and could we possibly be on the verge of replacing mass production altogether? 3D printing is making its way forward in the mainstream and is allowing anyone to create customised products on demand at affordable prices.
The Forthcoming of the Third Industrial Revolution
Increasingly hailed as the next big thing, 3D printing is credited with benefiting consumers, industries and economies. The largest benefit is expected in the field of medicine. Bio printing tissues with blood vessels, small organs and low-cost prosthetic parts using 3D printers are gaining momentum in the industry. 3D printing is expected to help economies grow in the field of healthcare, agriculture, construction and technology. In the short run, it will especially help advanced economies to escape economic stagnation since they have the skilled labour, infrastructure and funds in place to commercialise 3D printing.
Emerging economies may have more to gain from 3D printing in terms of improving living standards and productivity, but their adoption of the technology is expected to be slow and bumpy, given political and financial constraints. For example, in high tech industries, 3D printing enables prototypes to be created faster and cheaper during the initial stages of research and development. Architecture firms are also using this technology to print realistic models to communicate their ideas to clients and thus, secure projects. Even the entertainment industry is benefiting from 3D printing, with Hollywood using it to create costumes. An interesting example is the Iron Man’s suit, certain parts of which were 3D printed. However, it is important to state that 3D printing is currently far from affordable for the masses.
Intellectual Property Issues
As per any new technology, 3D printing is bound to bring disadvantages alongside advantages as it expands. One disturbing reality for future inventors is that copyright infringements will increase, as patented products and designs can be easily counterfeited using 3D printers. A growing number of construction companies are turning to 3D printing suppliers to produce smaller parts for large-scale projects, but could such activity be putting their intellectual property at risk? The increasing popularity of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, as a viable way to produce parts on a commercial scale is bringing with it a unique set of challenges for innovators wanting to safeguard their creations.
Patents have a term of 20 years, after which the technologies they protect can be used by third parties and, over the last few years, a number of key patents relating to additive manufacturing, in particular fused deposition modeling and metal laser sintering, have expired. These expiring patents have fuelled a general misconception that 3D printing manufacturing is a new production method when, in fact, the relatively simple processes involved have been in use for decades.
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