3D printing our way into an infinitely customizable future
The first car I ever wanted to buy was a 1969 Mustang that I came across on MercadoLibre (NASDAQ: MELI), everything looked perfect, but there was one thing holding me back: the lack of rare spare parts in the market and the potential of spending weeks or months waiting for a replacement if anything were to happen.
This may soon be a thing of the past, as breakthroughs in metal-based 3D printing make it possible to produce rare, discontinued vehicles, aircraft, or even bicycle parts with little effort. These can be printed with extreme precision to match the authentic component’s exact dimensions and material quality. The applications for such technology are seemingly infinite, which in the right hands can solve common problems like 3D printing prosthetic limbs, to perfectly fit a patient or custom accessories to wear. But what happens if this technology falls into the wrong hands and is used for printing weapons of war?
That’s exactly one of the fears expressed by some after Raytheon Technologies Corporation (NYSE: RTX) successfully 3D printed almost every component required to build a guided missile, including the rocket engines, control systems and more; approximately 80% of it. On the one hand, 3D printing may be used to create artificial human hearts or organs to save an individual, but we may see a future where this technology could be used to print weapons on demand on the battlefield.
I like to think that humanity tends to gravitate toward solving problems and that consumers’ money tends to dictate which direction industries evolve towards. Hence why Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) partnered with Legor Group to begin developing new precious alloy metals and solutions to incorporate into their Metal Jet 3D printing machines and experiment with customizable accessories in the Fashion and Jewelry sector, which is considered to be ripe for this adoption.
In recent years, a prominent trend has been the transition from broad, one-size-fits-all solutions to more customizable and personalized services, and 3D printing has the ability to take it even further. Companies will be able to provide more flexibility and personalization of item features and design without having to raise prices considerably.
Soon enough, consumers will no longer walk the aisles of stores seeing the same repetitive products hanging from the shelves; instead, they will be sitting home comfortably customizing the design to fit their needs or tastes. Maybe it is a table design you saw in your favourite series, and you need it to be a few inches shorter to fit in your living room with a different colour to match the walls, or maybe your 10-year-old wants to start building his own toys based on open-source blueprints he found online.
Companies like Autodesk, Inc. (NASDAQ: ADSK) and ANSYS, Inc. (NASDAQ: ANSS), which specializes in 3D design and engineering software, could play a significant role in enabling ordinary people to easily design and print their own creations. This could put the final nail in the coffin for traditional brick-and-mortar businesses if online retailers like Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) or Alibaba Group Holdings (NYSE: BABA) decide to integrate 3D printing stations into their warehouses. This will have a large impact on how we envision future supply chains while also giving customers the possibility to purchase uniquely customizable items that can be directly delivered to them at a fraction of today’s price without sourcing the item from a distant location or keeping large stocks of inventory on-site.
3D printing is transitioning into a sci-fi-like realm, where it’s no longer a theoretical question of what is achievable but rather a matter of time before we witness exponentially more advancements thanks to it being a necessity in today’s manufacturing process. Some of you might remember that scene from the movie “The Fifth Element” when the scientists were able to reconstruct Leeloo’s entire body using her DNA information as the blueprint. Once initiated, the robots began “printing” her layer by layer, from bones to organs and tissues, giving life to the character Leeloo.
Currently, the healthcare industry has benefited by finding applications such as 3D printed moulds for use in dentistry, prosthetic limbs or in the case of complex surgeries where it can prove to be a cost-effective solution to print a uniquely designed part that fits a patient’s needs. Seeing how far we’ve come, it’s not hard to imagine that one day we will reach this level of sophistication, especially when other areas of science are advancing at a galloping pace, eventually converging into each other and opening new doors of possibilities.
Traditional methods of production tend to produce excessive waste of materials by implementing subtractive methods like carving the shape or design desired onto a large chunk of material; 3D printing allows the possibility of not only replicating the same shapes but effectively optimizing the internal structural design while at the same time mimicking the biological process of creating an object layer by layer or “cell by cell” and thus considerably optimizing the use of materials in the process and eliminating waste. This will, in turn, have a positive impact on the environment and how businesses will conduct their future operations, given that consumers are actively more supportive of sustainable brands.
One thing is for certain, the 3D printing industry is still in its infancy and needs more maturing, especially when it comes to material manipulation and handling, which ultimately is a key factor in unlocking its true potential. We are already seeing the positive impact that it offers organizations and diverse industries in improving their efficiency, flexibility and costs of production by accelerating the prototyping process and bringing a final product to market.
This technology can go as far as our imaginations allow, from artwork and toys to complete structures and even transplantable organs. In a future where you could 3D print almost anything from the comfort of your home, what would you print if you had the chance to do so now?