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It’s a shame that so much negativity has accompanied the proliferation of 3D printing recently – particularly surrounding the capacity to print functional firearms.

But the fact is that 3D printers are now a reality. Their influence is likely to be huge and while there will be downsides it’s likely they will be the springboard for many positive developments.

In fact, as far as disruptive technologies go it is hard to imagine one that has the potential to transform so many different fields. Back in 2011 The Economist likened it to the development of the printing press, or the steam engine concluding “…it is impossible to foresee the long-term impact of 3D printing. But the technology is coming, and it is likely to disrupt every field it touches.”

Research and development accelerated

Companies who engage in research and development are likely to be big winners. The cost of 3D printers has been tumbling while their capabilities have increased. This facilitates rapid prototyping. That is giving businesses and other organisations the opportunity to go from the drawing board to developing prototypes at a fraction of the cost and time that it has taken previously. Now there is no need for bespoke tooling or moulds or costly short production runs.

Moreover it allows them to then flit backwards and forwards between drawing board and modelling to hone their creation.

It brings down the costs for everyone and opens the door to smaller scale R&D that previously would not have had the funds to get off the ground.

Opportunity in developing the printers

The evolution of the printers themselves is another opportunity. There are already multiple technologies behind 3D printing including wire, granular and laminated and the pace of change is rapid. We often talk fondly of the innovation in our very own city of Bristol and the 3D printing sector is no exception with CEL Robox in nearby Portishead pioneering a twin nozzle printer that can finish an object in fine detail at faster speeds than previously possible.

From prototype to finished product

Traditional production lines specialise in producing high volumes of standard products – aka mass production. This has by and large been a staple since the industrial revolution and was famously summed up by Henry Ford who stated “Any customer can have a car painted any colour he wants so long as it’s black”.

3D printers have the potential to turn this on its head, and thus be a key driver in a new age of mass customisation – where bespoke products can be ‘mass produced’. All that is needed to make changes to a product are amendments to the code that instructs the printer.

Although mass customisation has been around in other guises for a while (consider choosing options on cars for instance or check out NikeID) 3D printers have the potential to take it to the next level.

We will be particularly interested to see how businesses apply processes, software and customer interfaces to this trend, it’s already common for 3D printing technologies to feature within R&D claims.

Another disruption that 3D printers could have on mass production is to scatter it. Traditionally, mass production has thrived on economies of scale with big production hubs producing goods on a global scale. As 3D printing advances it is likely that without the need to rely on expensive production lines, goods can be produced at a more local level – closer to the end markets. Opticians in the UK are already making use of 3D printing technology to create custom glasses frames on the spot for their customers, the opportunity for 3D printing to have a transformative effect on medical treatments in less economically developed countries has been one of the key areas of focus for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

3D Printers – the future

As The Economist suggested no-one can predict the true impact that 3D printers will have on the world but we will make one prediction – It’s going to be exciting!

There is so much going on the world of 3D printing that we thought we end this post with a quick look at the good, the bad and the ugly of 3D printing.

3D printing – The Good

  1. The potential medical application mind-boggling: Prosthetic limbs, facial reconstruction and artificial organs using real human tissue are just some of the ground-breaking innovations around the corner. Liver cells, stem cells and invertebral discs are just a few of the areas which are currently the focus of significant R&D investment, the first 3D printed eardrums have already rolled off the printer, created from human cartilage, achieving sound clarity than is possible in nature.
  2. Remote manufacture – Research is being undertaken to see if 3D printing could be used to build a moon base on location rather than having to pre-fabricate it on earth and ship it up there.
  3. The environment – 3D printing uses far less raw materials than traditional techniques – good for preserving the materials themselves, reducing the carbon footprint of transporting them, and reducing waste disposal.

3D printing – The Bad

  1. Firearms – As we have already mentioned, the manufacture of firearms on 3D printers has grabbed the headlines. Legislation is not currently able to keep pace with the rate of development 3D printing technology.
  2. Health Hazard? – There are some safety concerns regarding harmful particles being released into the air as a by-product of the 3D printing process.
  3. Piracy – Just as the entertainment industry has been plagued by digital piracy, the proliferation of 3D printers is likely to lead to a similar problem for manufacturers. Licensed merchandise is one sector that will be an obvious target.

3D printing – The Ugly

  1. We are sure 3D printers will be used to print all manner of ugly objects. Something that had been expected to be ugly was a reconstruction of Richard III’s head by the University of Dundee. The King whom Shakespeare immortalised as “Deformed, unfinished, sent before his time” actually scrubbed up ok when run through a 3D printer – you can judge for yourself here.
  2. It’s likely to get ugly in the courts too. Where does the legal responsibility lie for 3D printed goods: with the printer manufacturer, the printer user, the blueprint designers? We will have to leave that to the lawyers to decide.

If you want to find out more about R&D tax credits then contact the team at ForrestBrown today on 0117 926 9022 or email us info@forrestbrown.co.uk.

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