The New Revolution - 3-D printing is changing manufacturing and the world as we know it

by Peter Merrill

With the Theme of this QP issue being technology, it was an easy decision to focus the Innovation Imperative column on 3-D printing. It is one of the most exciting new technologies since the transistor of the last century, and since the steam engine two centuries before that.

But in this column, I want to focus less on the technology and more on the possibilities the technology brings. The technology is changing at an amazing pace. If I had written this column two years ago, the facts and the data I quote would have been very different. Two years from now, this column will likely be obsolete.

So what are the possibilities? Imagine you are doing a job around the house and you’re missing a bolt or screw of the correct thread, or even a wrench of the right size. You waste an hour hunting for it, then — in frustration — drive to the store to buy what you need. 

Ten years from now, you will go to your computer, or more likely your handheld device, input the data for the item you need, press "print" and your 3-D printer — which will be the size of your present desktop 2-D printer — will make what you need while you have a cup of coffee.

This is not something from science fiction writer Isaac Asimov1 — this is the real world.

The innovator looks for unmet needs, and there are so many out there. The innovator asks: Where do people waste time, and where are they having trouble getting things done? Whether it is finding the right nuts and bolts for a household task, finding a new pair of shoes of the right style, color and fit, or at the extreme, waiting for surgery or an organ transplant, 3-D printing will at some time in the not-too-distant future provide answers to frustrating tasks. It’s not there yet, but at the present pace of development, it’s getting closer every day.

Technological basics

Many readers are likely already familiar with 3-D printing technology, so I will discuss it only briefly. It combines the technologies of inkjet printing, computer-aided design (CAD) software and advanced materials. You’ve already seen it in movies. Remember "Mission Impossible III" when Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team build a mask he will wear to impersonate the evil villain? You see the mask being built in a series of layers using a computer image and injecting a material onto a base where the material solidifies. The computer image is replicated on the mask.

Conceptually, that’s all it is. Practically, you need the CAD software, which has become well-developed in recent years. You need hardware — similar to your desktop printer. Finally, you need material, which is where the challenges are.

The first step in all 3-D printing processes is for software to identify cross-sections through the item to be built and calculate how each layer must be created. The machine builds up the item a layer at a time by applying a thin layer of resin or by using a laser to melt metal powder. The material hardens in the pattern of the cross-section. It’s just like in the "Mission Impossible" example. 

The tray on which the item sits drops about a millimeter or less, a new layer of resin is applied and the process repeats. A variation on this operates like inkjet printing. Printing heads in the machine apply a liquid binder onto a bed of powder. Color is applied at the same time.

Traditionally, manufacturing components have been made using the techniques of a sculptor — drilling, milling and grinding to work a piece of metal. 3-D printing uses the techniques of a potter — building from clay up to the finished product. That is why it is often called additive manufacturing. 

Development of advanced materials has been slow due to excessive secrecy and lack of collaboration. My organization pioneered C-fiber manufacture from acrylic fiber 50 years ago, but the current method of C-fiber fabrication is hugely archaic. The technology of synthetic fiber manufacture was developed many years ago, and I spent my early R&D days as a chemical engineer in that field. Modern inkjet technology has evolved from that. The great advances in 3-D printing have been in software development, which is largely due to open-source development and good collaboration. 

Quality benefits

3-D printing has many attributes that appeal to the quality professional, the first being cycle-time reduction. You make an item at the point where it will be used. You don’t need a mold, which is the high-cost item in plastic fabrication. Material efficiency is much higher — you only use what you need. 

Most dramatically, economies of scale evaporate and mass customization becomes a reality. A batch size of one costs the same as 100 or 1,000. This attribute has huge benefits at the R&D stage of innovation. The eternal nightmare of the scale-up from development to production is now eliminated. It also enables the development team to trial alternatives at low costs. For example, the shoe manufacturer Timberland developed a new shoe sole in 90 minutes for $35, instead of spending a week and $1,200.2

Some of the other possibilities 3-D printing presents affect our everyday lives quite dramatically. Hospitals can make custom-made metallic and plastic implants for surgical use. There is R&D work taking place that involves human cells being used in the 3-D printer to produce a replacement body part. Researchers are currently working on creating blood vessels, but imagine if ears, liver and kidneys built from living tissue also could be created. 

This would mean eliminating the waiting time for donors. A university in China working on this endeavor predicts the production of fully functional "printed" organs could be reality in the next 10 to 20 years.3 A university in Belgium already reported that it printed a jawbone for an 83-year-old woman, it was implanted, and the woman is now able to chew and speak with the new jawbone.4

Serious downsides

The dark side to all of this is that less desirable items also can be printed. One organization has already reported it built a plastic gun and made design blueprints freely available on the internet.5,6 This means anyone with a 3-D printer could make a gun, use it for criminal purposes and dispose of it so that the gun is untraceable. Broaden your thinking and this becomes the perfect answer for the terrorist, drug lord and gang leader. Broaden further and imagine the production of nuclear weapons in anonymous locations. This is serious stuff.

If you don’t believe me on these issues, there is a good video on YouTube about 3-D printing that I recommend you watch.7 Even if you do believe me, watch it anyway. The video is from the "16 x 9" news program and shows a young man interviewed shortly after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in December 2012. He smiles happily and explains how he is working on making a gun using 3-D printing, and says he is doing it to make a political statement. 

It’s chilling to watch, and it’s a reminder that it will be just as difficult to control the making of weapons using 3-D printing as it is to control free downloading of music, movies and software. The issue of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses is huge and relates to this discussion, but is outside the scope of this column.

Looking ahead

The current slow speed of 3-D printers limits its use in mass production, although you can expect that to change. But even as efficiency and function improve, that is not where its benefits will be most felt — and that’s not the point of the technology. 

A couple of years ago, a great article was published in the Economist headlined, “Print Me a Stradivarius.”8 It explained how the industrial revolution of the 18th century and the arrival of mass production changed economics and societies through economies of scale. It goes on to explain that 3-D printing will do the opposite. The article provides data and costs on 3-D printing. In just two years, machines that cost $20,000 will cost less than $1,000.

So, do you want to get started? 

Retail stores are supplying 3-D printers and you can download software with 30,000 3-D designs on it, or if you still prefer, you can buy the DVD. Just days before I wrote this column, Microsoft released a 3-D printing app for Windows 8.1.9 It’s quite basic, but it shows where things are headed. QP

References and notes

  1. Isaac Asimov, Wikipedia,
  2. 3D Systems, "The Timberland Company," (case sensitive).
  3. Helen Morgan, "Chinese Scientists Successfully Produce a Living Kidney Using a 3-D Printer," Inhabitat, Sept. 9, 2013,
  4. Paul Marks, "3-D Printer Provides Woman With a Brand New Jaw," New Scientist One Per Cent blog, Feb. 6, 2012,
  5. Mario Diaz, "Guns ‘Printed’ With 3-D printers are Latest Security Scare After Blueprints Hit the Internet," Pix 11, May 6, 2013, (case sensitive). 
  6. The blueprints were downloaded more than 100,000 times before being removed at the order of the U.S. government. For more information, visit:
  7. 16 x 9, "3-D Printing: Make Anything You Want," (case sensitive). 
  8. "Print Me a Stradivarius," Economist, Feb. 10, 2011,
  9. Mark Hachman "Microsoft Debuts 3-D Printing App for Windows 8.1," PC World, Nov. 15, 2013,