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Another dimension

By Bryan Borzykowski | July 14, 2014
Another dimension

Imagine that just two decades from now, the Canadian economy has reinvented itself. We don’t export much to the U.S. anymore, and all of the goods we produce are designed, developed and ready for sale in days. What could turn this massive change into reality? Inexpensive 3-D printers.

Companies already use these machines, which build objects based on digital blueprints from layers of plastic, ceramic, metal and other materials, to make products such as rocket-engine fuel injectors and parts for rare cars. But it’s only a matter of time before 3-D printers churn out everything from pieces of food to human hearts, says Christopher Barnatt, Associate Professor of Strategy and Future Studies at Nottingham University Business School. Up front spoke to Barnatt, author of the 2013 book 3D Printing: The Next Industrial Revolution, about where this fast-growing technology is headed. 

How is 3-D printing being used today?

It’s actually been in use since the 1980s, but it’s traditionally been used to make prototypes. Now we’re making bits and pieces of final products. It’s often industrial components, like bits of airplanes or spare parts. You can also more easily make moulds that make the final product. That can reduce the cost of making a component by 70 per cent, so it’s really having an impact.

Where might 3-D printing have the most impact in the short term?

We’re starting to see a lot of development in dentistry, ophthalmology, cardiology and other medical areas. In dentistry, you’ll be able to scan someone’s mouth and produce an impression using a 3-D printer rather than plaster. Eye doctors will print glasses and even lenses, potentially. This year we saw the first 3-D-printed human liver tissue, which is being used for drug testing. In 10 to 15 years, we’ll be able to print human cells.

Where are we when it comes to adoption?

It’s starting to enter the mainstream, but it’s still a fairly small industry. It’s only producing about $2-billion worth of stuff worldwide, which is small compared to the rest of the manufacturing sector, but it’s growing rapidly, by about 300 per cent a year. It’s revolutionary, though. In 10 years’ time, maybe 20 per cent of things will be made with a 3-D printer.

How will this technology affect business?

It will bring products to market so much faster. You can make a product mould now, but that might cost $30,000 and take a few months. With 3-D printing, you can make it for $2,000 overnight. That changes the nature of the market. There will be many more products out there that people can buy – and buy cheaply. 

Is that why 3-D printing is so revolutionary?

Yes, but it will also allow companies to make things in their own country. Today, our economy is based on shipping things to people and storing them, but if you can build something as close to the end point as possible, it takes all of that out of the equation. In his State of the Union address last year, [U.S. President] Barack Obama talked about how 3-D printing will bring manufacturing back home. That will change the economy.

What does that mean for industries reliant on an import-export model?

Those businesses could potentially be in trouble. I was at a logistics conference recently, and there was a talk on how UPS will adapt its business. Is its business shipping? Or is it delivering products to the customer the way they want them? Maybe UPS can start accepting 3-D files and print them for customers. 

How can companies ensure that they’re not left behind?

One thing companies don’t realize is that they don’t have to own a    3-D printer to get into 3-D printing. There are a lot of businesses that will take a file and print it for you. So you don’t have to rush out and spend tens of thousands of dollars. Just think of something you want to create, send the file and get it back.

Will we all have 3-D printers in our homes?

A lot of people will have one, and we’re only about 18 months away from a $99 printer. But you’ll only be able to print small plastic things like toys or tools at home. 

What will we be making in, say, 20 years?

We’ll be printing a lot of clothing, shoes and other things we want customized that absolutely fit. Medicine will be transformed. We’ll be printing some foods – you can already print ingredients – and sections of buildings. Printing in 3-D will create a new economy.

 

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