3-D Printing: The Future of Manufacturing

The first time I heard about 3-D printing, I thought to myself, ‘Impossible!’ But then I thought, ‘What if it actually is possible?’

Guess what? It’s possible…and it has the potential to change the ways of global manufacturing forever. Forbes says, ‘3-D printing will change absolutely everything it touches.’ Wired proclaims, ‘3-D printing will be the next industrial revolution, and [it] will compete with mass manufacturing in many areas.’

3-D printing holds the promise of unlimited customization of the kinds of products you want to use and buy. You’ll have greater control, and more of a say in how things are created… how they come into the physical world.

This technology could create many new jobs and careers and strengthen the economy. It will also decrease the cost in time, money and materials it takes to transport your possessions. But at the same time, the resulting technological disruption facing existing industries is likely to shift the balance of wealth around the world.

The last time there was such a shift in the standard of manufacturing may very well have been the early 1900s, when Henry Ford invented mass production for his Model T automobiles.

For roughly 30 years, 3-D printing has been in development under the name ‘rapid prototyping’. But in the past five years, it has finally gained real traction within the marketplace. Now both inventors and investors have hit the ground running.

Soon enough, the 3-D printer will be as familiar to you as the personal computer. Catch the idea before the idea catches on and you could put some extra cash in your pocket.

3-D Printing isn’t when a 2-D image is applied onto a 3-D surface. That’s called pad printing. And it’s not printing 2-D holograms. That’s holography.

Think about the 2-D printer in your office, and in just about every office in the developed world. That 2-D printer uses ink from its cartridges and paper from its tray to print something on a flat piece of paper.

First, as always, you start with an idea. Then you use computer software as a tool to develop your idea. When you’re ready to have the real thing, you click ‘print’ and the command travels through a computer network and out from your printer. That’s what you’re used to.

But a 3-D printer is an ‘evolved’ 2-D printer.

You develop your idea on a computer-aided design (CAD). After you’re finished, it travels through a network and out from a 3-D printer as…an object. An object! A real three-dimensional object. Not an image on a piece of paper. A design that’s become incarnate!

It’s…alive! Well, not quite…not yet anyway. That’s another story.

OK, OK…So How Does 3-D Printing Work?

There are a few methods, but let’s keep it simple for now.

3-D printers lay down successive layers of micro-thin ‘ink’.

In between each layer, a binding agent may be applied. A fully automated laser eventually fuses everything together. After doing this many times, it builds up from a series of cross sections and becomes a 3-D object.

In other cases, the nozzle of the printer acts like a hot glue gun.

Click here to see an example.

The ‘ink’ is typically a polymer or metal, and it comes in a fine powder or molten liquid form. The ‘paper’ is actually the object itself, and the applied binding agent helps hold it all together. Those ingredients are often held in a heated container so they don’t clump.

Eventually, what usually happens is that a fully automated laser fuses together the “ink” and the ‘paper’ until the whole thing solidifies. This means that 3-D printing is a kind of ‘additive manufacturing’ and can create almost any shape with extreme precision.

It’s a revolutionary upgrade and distinctly different from the traditional machining method of ‘subtractive manufacturing’. That is, when you have to mould, cut, drill or beat something out of a larger chunk of material.

It is, therefore, extremely cost-effective. The leftover raw material can be reclaimed and used just as easily for what you print next. It also allows products to be made in a matter of minutes to hours, not days or weeks.

This method is a way to build from the bottom up, from small to big. And it can build from the inside out. Another great advantage with this technology is that it derives from computer-aided design (CAD). That means there’s virtually no limit to customization.

Luckily for everyone: When industrial-scale technology advances enough, it has a way of finding itself into people’s homes.

Just remember how personal computers got here. Computers used to be the exclusive tool of the military, science labs and a select few universities. Then visionaries like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates made a market that enabled the PC to infiltrate your own life.

And just remember, before the personal computer revolution took off, Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp. in 1977 said, ‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.’ You know how that turned out. It’s likely that 3-D printing will follow suit.

Technologies like 3-D printing don’t disrupt industries as soon as they’re discovered and invented. They disrupt industries when there is a cost-efficient business model that allows them to spread through the greater population.

The Model T Ford, for example, was not the first automobile. Cars were luxury items for the rich. It was when Henry Ford found a way to make them affordable and mass-produced them that the market was disrupted.

That’s where 3-D printing is now. It’s becoming more affordable, and it’s going to change the landscape on which your investments sit. And the rug will be entirely pulled out from under some industries.

Josh Grasmick
Contributing Editor, Money Morning

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