This column is by Ronda Wescott, President, Global Technology – Business Insurance at Travelers
Picture a world where goods can be produced on demand, in a matter of hours, at the exact location where they are needed. No ordering online. No shipping costs. No lengthy delivery or turnaround times. Just select or design the desired product on a computer, click an icon, and a machine generates the product in the same way an office printer produces documents on paper.
This may sound like something found in a science-fiction movie. It’s not. 3D printing is here now, and it represents an extraordinary business opportunity for technology companies. Consider the range of industry applications for this technology:
1) Industrial products:
Manufacturing companies are experimenting with a variety of raw materials to print their products, including steel, titanium, aluminum and a variety of industrial grade thermoplastics. Many have gone beyond prototyping to use printed parts in their finished goods today. Ford Motor Company, for example, produces elastomer grommets for their electric vehicles and damping bumper assemblies for their work vans.
The aerospace and defense industries are also seeking ways to exploit the capabilities of 3D printing. Boeing fabricates plastic interior parts of Ultem (a high-performance flame retardant thermoplastic) and nylon in their test and evaluation units. Likewise, NASA is developing a land rover that could allow astronauts to explore extraterrestrial surfaces like Mars. Nearly 70% of the vehicle’s parts were designed and built from production grade thermoplastics in the heated chamber of their Stratasys 3D printer.
2) Consumer goods:
3D printing is also on the rise in the consumer goods sector where the personalization trend continues to gain momentum. With 3D printing, consumers no longer have to sacrifice lower prices in favor of customization. Continuum, a San Francisco-based clothing retailer, lets Web customers design their own bikinis online. When a customer submits their design, a 3D printer prints the garment and ships it to the customer’s address.
Additive manufacturing also benefits consumer goods companies by decreasing manpower necessary to produce prototypes and finished goods. Using conventional manufacturing techniques, Adidas required twelve technicians and four to six weeks to create a new shoe prototype. With their in-house 3D printers, product designers can evaluate the effectiveness of a new model in one or two days requiring only two technicians.
3) Medical and healthcare applications:
3D printing in the medical field started in the early 2000s with the development of custom dental implants. Today, 3D printers are being used to create hearing aids, contact lenses, and prosthetics made to an individual patient’s exact body shapes and contours, often at a fraction of the cost of a conventional medical device.
Thirteen-year-old Dawson Riverman of Forest Grove, Oregon, was born missing two fingers. Unfortunately, his family could not afford a conventional prosthetic. Thanks to a volunteer organization called E-nable, Dawson now sports a fully functional 3D printed hand that enables him to ride a bike, grip a baseball bat, and try out for his school’s soccer team. The cost? Less than $50.
Bio printing, another emerging medical technology, may prove to be the most disruptive yet welcome technology of the 21st century. Researchers can now fabricate human tissue with 3D printers and a patient’s own DNA. Using biodegradable scaffolds, doctors can print an organ’s framework, then inject it with a patient’s own living cells in the exact locations where they are most likely to grow naturally. Because the patient’s own cells are injected into the bio printing material, the risk of rejection is minimized.
Though still years away, biomedical engineers hope to be able to print a customized liver, kidney, pancreas, or heart using bio-ink – a blend of living cells that a printer will assemble into living tissue layer by layer. If they are successful, it could dramatically decrease the mortality rate from chronic disease and render patient waiting lists a thing of the past.
4) Food applications:
Current 3D food printers may have limited capability, but that hasn’t stopped companies from exploring new ways to produce and distribute their foods. In restaurants, a 3D printing can produce intricate desserts that would take a human chef more time than customers are willing to wait. Likewise, food industry experts expect 3D printers to eventually become as common in home kitchens as microwave ovens.
3D printing represents a potential shift in the business model of food service companies. As the technology matures, grocery stores may sell food cartridges loaded with edible 3D printing material for consumers to print and eat in their own homes.
The airline industry is interested in this concept. Today, meals must be pre-cooked on the ground before takeoff, so they are never truly fresh. Once they are loaded onto an airliner, they take up a great deal of space, which most commercial airliners on’t have. A team of Indian engineers is trying to solve this problem with Sky Kitchen, an airborne 3D food printing system that can print ready-to-eat meals on demand. They are also developing software to allow passengers to choose their own meals from the touch screens in their seats.
3D printing risks
Along with the many opportunities, however, 3D printing also creates new risks for manufacturing, software, and other technology companies. In our latest issue of Travelers Technology Risk Advisor, we explore how companies can manage these risks to capitalize on the 3D printing opportunity. To learn more, be sure to download or view Have your 3D printed cake and eat it too:
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