Sunday, February 24, 2013

3D Printing: Backbone of the New Industrial Revolution or Expensive Dud?

Since the unlikely duo of Barack Obama and Glenn Beck have both lauded it as the future of American innovation, 3D printing is poised to make significant ripples through global society - not just here, but even in China:
Chinese researchers are currently working on 3D printing technology to produce large, complicated components for aircrafts, according to a report from Caixin Online. The team of Chinese researches is led by Wang Huaming, a professor in materials science engineering who won the National Award for State Council in Technological Achievement.
Professor Wang said their existing 3D printing technology is can only supplement traditional manufacturing. According to him, “it’s too early to say” if the technology will pave the way to revolutionize manufacturing.
The technology - also known as "additive manufacturing" - has gotten so advanced that scientists can now print stem cells:
The cells were floating in a “bio-ink,” to use the terminology of the researchers who developed this technique. They were able to squeeze out tiny droplets, containing five cells or fewer per droplet, in a variety of shapes and sizes. To produce clumps of cells, the team printed out cells first and then overlaid those with cell-free bio-ink, resulting in larger droplets or spheroids of cells. The cells would group together inside these spheroids. Spheroid size is key, because stem cells need certain conditions to work properly. This is why very precisely controlled 3-D printing could be so valuable for stem cell research.
After being squeezed out of a thin valve, the cells were still alive and viable, and able to transform into any other cell in the body, the researchers say. It’s the first time anyone has printed human embyronic stem cells, said lead researcher Will Wenmiao Shu, a professor at Heriot-Watt. But ... why?
Meanwhile, 3D printers could allow people to eventually make their own guns:
In a spare bedroom, where an AR-15 rifle leans against the wall, Lerol is using a 3-D printer no larger than an espresso machine to make plastic rifle parts and ammunition magazines in between tea sets and chess pieces. The parts print, layer over layer, creating objects like an ink-jet printer etches words.

The 30-year-old software engineer said he has no plans to print anything outlawed by the government. But like many other gun owners, he is nervous that the push for gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre will infringe on his Second Amendment rights.
To some, 3D printing will herald a new Industrial Revolution:
The third industrial revolution is in full swing. At Inventables it is our mission to simplify the process of going from idea to finished product. We believe this will further ignite this revolution. We believe this movement will be the primary driver of growth in our economy in the next decade.
To others, it may cause more harm than good:
We don't want things enough to support the time, labor, and community structures necessary to create them, but we still kind of want them. We have invented machinery to split the difference, giving us versions of what once was, to do with as we please. Meanwhile, creation is driven a step further into abstraction, occurring in software, carried out by self-directed machinery who'll need us to pick a size, color, and click "OK" in the print dialog, an effort so minimal and diffuse that it's worth almost nothing at all.
Regardless, 3D printing is on the verge of being a transformative technology...assuming it can get past all the looming legal battles:
Formlabs will be dealing with a patent infringement lawsuit brought against them by 3D Systems, one of the biggest players in the industry. The hobbyist segment of the industry has been built on the back of expired patents, but as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has pointed out, many patents that will be required to advance the state of the art will not expire for years or even a decade.
However, patents may benefit at least one in-demand 3D printed toys:
Standard Innovation CEO Danny Osadca told BusinessWeek that its in-house R&D capabilities give it a distinct competitive advantage. Osadca attributes the company’s success to the ability to evolve products based on customer feedback and frequent testing, even earning itself some patents in the process.
All of this, of course, assumes 3D printing isn't already becoming an investment bubble:
Citron Research, run by California-based investor and notable short-seller Andrew Left, issued a report on Thursday accusing 3D Systems' Chief Executive Abe Reichental of exaggerating advances in 3D printing and contributing to a bubble in the shares of 3D printing companies.

"Appearances have become completely unhinged from reality when it comes to the mania created in so-called '3D Printing' stocks, and 3D Systems in particular," Citron Research said. "Behind every good bubble there is a good promoter, in this case we have the best in Abe Reichental."

Shares of 3D Systems Corporation, the biggest listed U.S. 3D printer maker, fell. So did shares of Stratasys and ExOne.
Will 3D printing end up a paradigm shift or a glorified hobby for creative-types with expendable income and niche interests?

The jury is still out, but as you can see, there are a variety of interesting future possibilities at play.

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