Science fiction is strangely telling of future technologies. Take for example Star Trek, one of the most popular sci-fi shows in television history. The characters would walk through automatic sliding doors, non-existent in the day, and relay orders through personal communicators, not unlike the cell phones of today. One of the most amazing of their futuristic technologies was the replicator, a machine that could create a tangible three-dimensional object from almost thin air. Today, Captain Kirk would be proud to see that humanity is close to making the replicator a reality. By using a precise form of additive manufacturing (layering material), as opposed to subtractive (removing material), a new technology called 3D printing prints a complex three-dimensional object from raw materials. These raw materials can range from PVC plastic to titanium metal to bio-ink, and through the precision of inkjet-like printing heads, can be formed into products from large titanium jet engine parts to microscopic kidney cell structures. Three-dimensional printing is the future of manufacturing and, by changing manufacturing techniques, will disrupt many parts of society.
In the business world, disruption is a good thing as it opens doors for new profitable endeavors. Accordingly, three-dimensional printing is quickly becoming a technology worth the investment of the business world. 3D printing’s revolutionary techniques will streamline manufacturing processes from the prototyping phase to the production phase, making companies more efficient and cost-effective. An example of its acceptance into big business is shown by the recent actions of General Electric.
General Electric (GE) is one of the worlds biggest companies, third biggest according to the Forbes Global 2000 report (Forbes). The GE Aviation division is among the top aircraft engine manufacturers and is trusted by the majority of the world’s aircrafts. With this responsibility, GE Aviation must make careful decisions regarding which technology to invest in. On November 20th, 2012, GE took its first step into seriously investing in additive manufacturing and bought a small company called Morris Technologies, as well as its sister company, Rapid Quality Manufacturing. According to Morris Tech’s website, “The two privately held companies, with about 130 Cincinnati-area employees, specialize in additive manufacturing, an automated process for creating rapid prototypes and end-use production components” (Morris). Collectively, this means that GE Aviation has acquired the ability to manufacture engine prototypes and final products using the 3D printing technologies of Morris Technologies, and with it, the gate to immense possibility. These possibilities are highlighted in The Atlantic’s interview with General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, in which Immelt asserts, “3D printing allows you to make that product right the first time. It allows you to make it from the core up so you basically don’t have as much waste. The tooling is cheaper. The cycle time is faster. And that is the Holy Grail” (Immelt).
First of all, additive manufacturing saves material. “Instead of machining components from solid billets of metal, in which much of it may be cut away, only the material that is needed to shape the part is used” (Economist) saving billions of dollars in material costs. Next, additive manufacturing makes final products more consistent as the printers can repeatedly reproduce the exact same product. Immelt states, “We do unique shapes, so a shape of a turbine blade and where the holes go and what the coating is, that might be the difference in one or two points of fuel burn in the way a jet engine works. And that’s billions of dollars for our customers in terms of performance” (Immelt). Therefore, by building from the core up, without the possible mistakes of subtractive manufacturing, and being able to consistently replicate unique shapes, the additive manufacturing techniques of three dimensional printing will save billions of dollars for General Electric. 3D printing will even reduce the cycle of how long it takes for GE to design and produce a new gas turbine. It prints a prototype directly from its CAD (Computer Aided Design) blueprints, instead of having it hand-built by paid experts. Immelt emphasizes this by saying, “I think we would have thought about a new gas turbine taking five years to design and commercialize. Maybe you can do it in two” (Immelt). 3D printing will substantially disrupt the manufacturing processes of GE Aviation, augmenting efficiency and liberating the budget.
Not only are they penetrating industrial manufacturing techniques, but 3D printers are also showing up in the medical field, bringing innovative new medical techniques into existence. Using a kind of organic ink made of living cells, called bio-ink, specialized 3D printers can print cellular structures in a desired shape. The applications of such a technology range from printing skin onto burn patients to even fabricating a working kidney. The Wake Forest School of Medicine has taken an especially high interest in additive manufacturing, pioneering the way for these new medical ventures.
Ranking among the top third of American medical schools in total funding from the National Institutes of Health (Wake), Wake Forest School of Medicine has taken a sizable leap into researching ways to utilize 3D printers in the medical setting. Starting with one of the most common injuries in America, Wake Forest researchers have begun working on printing skin onto burn wounds. With over 2.4 millions burn injuries reported each year, 20,000 of which have major burns involving 25% of the body (Burn), a faster and easier way to substitute skin is a must have for those in serious condition. Grafts can have long preparation times, and some patients do not even have enough skin left to promote a graft. Using the 3D printer, the wound can be immediately stabilized, employing the patient’s own cells to manufacture the replacement skin.
Burn cases are not the only area where printable flesh can be an asset. In the pharmaceutical industry, new drugs are tested on 2D cell structures using petri dishes, which are not as reliable as actual three-dimensional tissue and can create misleading results. “Testing with 3D tissues provides more precise results, which allows for pharmaceutical companies to determine failed drugs early on before investing more money in development”(Thompson). With clinical trials accounting for the largest percentage of the industry’s budget for research and development, $31.3 billion to be exact (Thompson), using 3D printing is an incredible savings opportunity for pharmaceutical companies.
One of the most important advancements Wake Forest researchers have made is the ability to print with kidney cells. With over 93,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list (Living), the successful use of a 3D printer to generate a working human kidney will save the lives of thousands. According to Living Kidney Donor’s Network, “the wait for a deceased donor could be 5 years, and in some states, it is closer to 10 years.” (Living). By artificially making a replacement kidney, there would hardly be a shortage of donors as, again, the bio-ink uses the patients own cells. In this line of reasoning, the body would exhibit little to no rejection of the organ, saving even more lives. Although the prototype kidney is still experimental, Wake Forest researchers have high hopes for the use of artificial kidneys in the near future. Kidneys are only the start, as other institutions are already researching the printing of blood vessels, livers, and even heart valves. With the ability to artificially reproduce different parts of the body, the positive effects would span even into the animal kingdom as drug companies would have much less use for animal testing. The use of three-dimensional printing in the medical field will save time, money, and priceless human lives.
“Disruptive innovations stem from technological or business model advantages that can scale as disruptive businesses move in search of more demanding customers” (Mountz 57). Essentially, innovative businesses search for technologies that can change the business fundamentals and, in turn, promote growth by creating opportunity where before there was none. For example, the introduction of the computer created an overwhelming amount of opportunity and has directly affected not just businesses around the world, but a significant amount of how the human race functions from day to day. With new opportunities came new markets, and companies rose to the front of this new computer controlled age. Similarly, 3D printing markets already have entrepreneurs scrambling for dominance.
On the base level, where businesses are solely based on designing and selling 3D printing technology, Stratasys has already cornered a market capitalization of approximately $3 billion dollars. Its closest competitor, 3D Systems, has a market capitalization of over $2.4 billion (Murray). In a personal email interview with Stratasys employee Hunter Layton, it was stated that, “Stratasys is constantly thinking of ways to create innovative advancements in three-dimensional printer technologies” (Layton). With their belief that 3D printing is the next industrial revolution, Stratasys is paving the way for new advancements in 3D printing technologies.
On the imaginative level, businesses such as Organovo and Shapeways are creatively using the 3D printer’s abilities to generate profit in ways never before available. Organovo uses “three-dimensional tissue technology to create tissues on demand for research and surgical applications” (Organovo). With 2D tissue costing pharmaceutical companies billions in unreliable results, the projected market for supplying 3D tissue samples is huge. Organovo also plans to use 3D printers to produce substitute organs, yet another attractive industry. Utilizing the unique skills of 3D printers, Organovo is establishing new niche markets full of terrific potential.
A prime example of using three-dimensional printing as a springboard for new business ventures, Shapeways is the world’s leading 3D printing marketplace and community. Harnessing the amazing creative capabilities of the general public, Shapeways provides a production service for individuals to have their own designs brought into reality. Customers upload their CAD files onto the Shapeways website, and within 2-3 weeks, receive their finished product. Going even further, Shapeways provides an online marketplace for those same individuals to sell their products to others around the world. By crowd sourcing the creative aspect of actually designing three-dimensionally printed merchandise, Shapeways effectively draws on the entrepreneurial spirit of others to boost their own popularity and profits. The abilities of three-dimensional printing change the guidelines of what is possible, opening the imagination to realize what was previously only a dream.
Like all disruptive technologies, though, 3D printing has its downsides. With the endowments to construct physical objects, 3D printers have the power, or firepower as it may be, to print guns. As of July 22, 2012, the anonymous user HaveBlue posted pictures and downloadable CAD files of plastic .22 caliber gun parts (HaveBlue). A group called Defense Distributed has supplemented this activity by taking it upon themselves to test and further develop HaveBlue and other’s 3D gun designs. Gun control has been an extremely controversial topic both in the media and in the government, and is still being debated. With the addition of personally printed firearms into the gun control controversy, 3D printing may be treading into dangerous territory.
Another potential issue is the problem of pirating and IP (Intellectual Property) rights. Similar to people using the introduction of the Internet to pirate songs, the 3D printer can be used to pirate designs. With access to a CAD file for the product one could, for example, print a Star Wars action figure for a little brother’s birthday. This brings up the issue of whether or not privately printing merchandise is an infringement on a company’s IP rights. The 3D printer will be the Messiah for business and industry, but could it be the anti-Christ for American politics?
Ultimately, the pros of 3D printing heavily outweigh its cons; people will always find a way around legislations, no matter how hard governments strive for control. The Internet is an excellent example of this fact. It is still being used to pirate music, no matter the laws against it. People still steal IP using the Internet, no matter the laws against it. Even in oppressive governments such as Mubarak’s 2011 stranglehold over Egypt, where in an attempt to quell the revolution, 88% of Egyptian Internet access was shut down (Williams), revolutionists still found ways onto the Internet. They fought for their personal freedoms and won. The three-dimension printer will bring about a new age in industry, creating new businesses, new opportunities, and new paths of development for the capabilities of the human race. In the years to come, 3D printing will be pushed to its boundaries, and then pushed again as the technology becomes more and more prevalent in society. “Beam me up, Scotty,” the future is here.
Author: Dane Guberud. Dane, who is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder and a business student in the Leeds School of Business, is passionate about 3D printing and follows the 3D printing industry very closely.
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