Up until a decade ago, 3D printing seemed like a futuristic invention and its spreading looked like a far away possibility. In a couple of years instead this technology came to be a reality, spreading rapidly and leading to innovations in virtually every industrial sector, affordable even for small businesses.
The Additive Manufacturing, 3D printing in other words, is a production technology taking advantage of the integration of digital tools in production processes, through which the processes themselves are completely transformed. Data coming from computer-aided drafting softwares guide tools in layering the material of choice to create the desired shape. The name itself comes from the action of adding layers of material to create the finished product.
This logic is quite different from traditional production systems, creating objects removing material through drilling, milling and carving. The change brought by 3D printing is broader than the technological factor: it is a completely new approach to production, transforming time and place aspects of production itself.
Up until some years ago, industrial producers used to delocalize production, in order to cut costs. Nonetheless, transfer costs were covered by revenues only in cases of big turnovers and not for products distributed in small quantity. Moreover, this strategy has created a lot of problems during the pandemic, since transport among countries was difficult and trade was slowed down.
The Additive Manufacturing allows the production to be near destination markets, decreasing the dependency from the global supply chain. It is, moreover, a flexible technology: in order to have different outputs, you just need to reprogram tools. This extreme flexibility makes the technology suitable for the production of unique, personalized pieces, even when characterized by complex structures. The only limit lies in the fact that it is not as profitable when it comes to mass production. Still, the future seems bright: an increase in the market size and new areas of application are expected.
In 2020, 3D printing has been especially crucial in the medical field: prostheses, stent, biodegradable screws. And there is more. 3D printing turned out to be extremely useful in complex surgical procedures, through the creation of 3D models: it was indeed possible to define the surgical steps and to create more precise prostheses or surgical tools.
In the aerospace industry, the additive manufacturing is a tried and tested technology, since its characteristics fit perfectly: complex structures, high level of costumization and the use of specific materials, which need to have a high thermal and mechanical capacity and, at the same time, have to be resistant and light.
For what that concerns the civil aviation industry, a report by SmarTech Analysis claims that the additive technology will represent a market of 7 billion dollars each year for the next ten years: hardwares, specialized consumables and services.
The fashion world is included as well in this “revolution”. For what that concerns the shoe industry, several labels have integrated pieces obtained through the AM in their models. There are many advantages: quick creation of prototypes, customization, integration of new materials, less production scraps and the optimization of production time. 3D printing was used, for instance, for the creation of shoe models with adjustable heels, the last innovation in the sector.
Similar advantages have characterized the optical industry, where the additive manufacturing has had a lot of success. Again, the customization 3D printing allows, as well as its ability to create objects with complex structures, is a precious resource in comparison to traditional methods.
There are already several websites, where it is possible to freely download files of glasses models, to which just the lenses must be added.
Beauty sector has used 3D printing for manicures: printers can indeed impress precise drawings on nails.
Entertainment industry began to request 3D printing for the creation of decorations and even anatomical pieces to be used in shows and performances. The italian singer-rapper Mamhood, for instance, has used AM-made pointy ears, in its “Inuyasha” videoclip.
Beyond the industrial application the additive manufacturing has, its potential lies in the impact it might have for ordinary citizens. They might become indipendent from industrial production through 3D printing. In the next few years, 3D printing might be in “every” household and might be used to produce what we need for everyday activities: utensils, tools and components for cars, forniture and even shoes and clothes. Even if such a change in consumption habits might seem unlikely, the last couple of years have shown how the reality can be transformed rapidly by technology. The ecological transition, a topic of primary importance today, requires a change in production and consumption models: sustainability, reuse and short production and supply chains are essential. 3D printing might have a fundamental role in this change.
Translated by Greta Thierry