In a lot of ways, the last few years have seen 3D printing “going mainstream,” so to speak. People are no longer astonished by the sheer capabilities of the technology, and we’re getting more accustomed to seeing stories about one interesting product or another having been 3D printed. People are also gaining more access to 3D printing; in some cases the costs of the devices have fallen, though we have posted about building one’s own 3D printer as well, and this is another option some savvier consumers are embracing.
The process of getting to this point, at which 3D printing is at least somewhat familiar to a lot of people, has been complex, fascinating, and enjoyable. But now that 3D printing is mainstream, what’s next for the technology? It’s hard to say with certainty, but we can look to a few current trends and developments and predict some of the ways that the technology could become more popular still.
Further Understanding Of Capabilities
Even if people are no longer astonished by what 3D printing can do in general, further understanding of the full range of the technology’s capabilities is likely to come with time. In a sense, the initial learning curve concerned the basic concept – that a 3D object could be printed into empty space by a machine according to a digital design. Next, people will inevitably come to learn about all of the various twists that can exist within that broad concept. For instance, people will get more used to the idea that 3D printers can create metal objects, and not only work with plastics; people will come to be familiar with larger 3D printers on a scale that can create car parts, or potentially even small homes and urban planning features. Ideas like these don’t necessarily fall into the most basic understanding of 3D printing, but they’ll inevitably be more widely understood in short time.
Combination With Other Advanced Manufacturing
This is perhaps more of a concern for large companies and significant manufacturing operations. Nevertheless, it’s a good bet that the next few years will see more people come to understand 3D printing as one of a few advanced manufacturing methods that can contribute to the creation of modern products. The technology’s most noteworthy counterpart may be injection molding, which is not as new, but which has grown vastly more sophisticated and capable. This is basically a process by which a given material is heated and molded to fit a shape, such that it hardens in that shape and becomes a final product. Fictiv describes injection molding processes as being ideal for design validation or for higher volume production, which largely conveys the idea that they are similarly useful to 3D printing. The truth though is that people may come to realize that the combination of the two technologies can benefit entire industries. For instance, there are some cases in which prototypes and early models are created via 3D printing (a better process for trial-and-error), and then used as the basis for large-scale molding efforts to design product lines.
The very notion of 3D-printed food can sound absurd on its face. It reads very much like something from a science fiction novel or a fantasy film in which food can simply be created, and there are no more resource shortages. Amazingly enough though, while it’s not all quite so glossy and miraculous as the sci-fi version, 3D-printed food has become a reality. Hackaday explains how 3D-printed food can work in a piece written just last year, and the concept is actually surprisingly straightforward. Basically, pastes made of organic materials and broken down ingredients (such as, in one example, peas and seaweed) can be printed into mock versions of regular food items (in the same example, a steak). The same article acknowledges that taste isn’t necessarily ideal just yet, but the very idea of creating food products from a mishmash of edible materials is exciting. It’s a starting point for what could be a massive step toward addressing food shortages, and it’s likely to become one of the main topics driving further interest in 3D printing.
This is something we don’t hear all that much about yet, but which could make for a significant step particularly with regard to consumer 3D printing. Singularity Hub took a look at 3D printing innovations we might see in the next five years or so and introduced this idea in an interesting way, stating that “hey” will become the “most frequently used command in design engineering.” Specifically the suggestion is that we’ll be able to say, “Hey 3D printer, design me a new pair of shoes” in much the same way we ask Alexa or Siri to make shopping lists or tell us the weather. If this proves to be true, it’s likely we’ll see a significant spike in consumer 3D printer purchases. For that matter, it could significantly change much of the retail industry.
Ultimately one of the cool things about 3D printing is that we’re all still figuring it out. It likely has countless applications we have’t yet considered or imagined. The suggestions here are grounded in current trends and speculation though, and should play a significant role in keeping this technology fresh and interesting.