New teeth while you wait to building colonies in space: 3D printing comes of age

Development of technologies for mining asteroids is already underway and in 20 years mining and living in space may be a reality. Robotised 3D printing in space would be a viable alternative to sending product supplies from Earth.– Andrew Watts, Newtecnic

The recent broadening in knowledge and understanding about 3D printing and additive manufacture have generated new business ideas and opportunities ranging from home hobby machines to printing buildings on other planets. Andrew Watts, CEO of international building engineer Newtecnic, reveals some exciting options.

3D printers are used extensively in automotive, aerospace and consumer goods industry applications to validate form. Over the last three decades considerable business and technical experience has been built up in enterprises that use this technology. On this foundation, and now that prices are falling, many more machines are being put into service.

Not only have 3D printers become less expensive, their capabilities have evolved. Machines that can print titanium, aluminium, silver and now carbon fibre, are revolutionising many businesses including, for example, jewellery making, by enabling production of shapes and designs that could not be made by conventional techniques.

The opportunity to show people what a design will look like, for example by making a plastic example first, allows people to acquire often-unique pieces with no risk of disappointment or surprise at the outcome.

The same idea is current in the life sciences industry where dentists will soon be able to produce perfect crowns on demand from in-house machines, while other types of medical implant could be literally made to measure.

There are opportunities throughout these developments for new types of services that will evolve to help companies make the most of the technology. Manufacturing is entering a renaissance where start-ups can produce brilliantly designed high quality products without the need for a factory.

Onsite manufacture

Newtecnic’s design engineering partnerships with US university engineering departments are aimed at developing new building products and assembly methods that see them accurately and efficiently manufactured and installed on some of the world’s most iconic buildings.

Rather than design components and have them made in remote factories to be delivered, and then assembled on site, Newtecnic facilitates the use of Construction Labs where local skilled craftspeople, using locally sourced materials, deploy very advanced production machinery in temporary factories.

These small but efficient manufacturing cells, which incorporate 3D printing, are dedicated to producing mass-customised components. And as robots become more advanced they will interact with Construction Labs generating, moving and installing both new and replacement building parts.

Light bulb moment

In the past, to have an idea for a product was one thing but to have it made was quite another. 3D printers have changed that, so now a single product can be made, small batches are easy to produce, and individual customisation has become practical. If demand increases, more machines can be simply added to meet it.

Existing manufacturing can easily adapt to accommodate 3D printing and many successfully deploy it extensively. New types of companies are also emerging that exploit the reduced cost base of 3D printing set-ups. These offer innovation through flexibility that is hard to match in a more traditional manufacturing environment.

There are opportunities too in the spares industry. Companies that are obliged to provide spare parts for many years, such as in the automotive, aerospace, and increasingly the construction industry, face storage and logistics costs with ‘dead’ stock.

With 3D printing it is simple to maintain “digital spares” that are printed to order. That means that any amount of digital spare parts can be held in stock indefinitely. This effectively extends product’s lives with all the reputational and environmental benefit that brings.

Fast and faster

Aerospace, F1, consumer product, life science and construction companies are increasing their 3D printer deployment to help them innovate faster. And in areas of economic underdevelopment where manufacturing industry has not taken a foothold, 3D design and printing offer great business innovation potential.

Creating products locally means that new agile businesses can start with low investment, minimal infrastructure and potentially high returns.

The ability to manufacture to demand is very appealing in poor areas of the world that view 3D printing as a way to leapfrog the industrial world’s production and development cycles. Innovative manufacturers are benefiting from this development by siting machines across the world to take advantage of operating conditions and energy costs.

The construction industry sees 3D printing as a way to avoid lengthy spare parts procurement supply chains by making parts and equipment on-site. Newtecnic is currently working in partnerships with US commercial and university engineering departments to develop, test and validate these methods.

Robot builders in space

Many people believe that our future includes colonising other planets. Development of technologies for mining asteroids is already underway and in 20 years mining and living in space may be a reality. Robotised 3D printing in space would be a viable alternative to sending product supplies from Earth.

It is predicted that the first permanent off-Earth dwellings will be built by robots using 3D printing techniques developed for the materials and conditions that are found on other planets. This long-term business opportunity has already spawned several development companies with Richard Branson and Google’s Larry Page as investors.

Fab Labs

Started as an outreach project from MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA), Fab Labs aims at developing programmable molecular assemblers able to make almost anything. Projects in Fab Labs include solar and wind-powered turbines, computers and equipment for agriculture and healthcare, housing, and printing complete working machines – including 3D printers.

Not surprisingly there are many business opportunities and new enterprise scenarios being developed around Fab Labs and their intensive use of 3D design technology.

Another idea is for people to use designers’ basic forms to customise their own products. This means that people without design skills can partner with designers to create new products. As 3D printing prices fall this market, driven by “collective intelligence”, will inevitably grow – scanning an item with your phone and making a part is also not far away.

This means, for example, people could scan, make, repair and replace parts rather than discard products because one component is faulty. The financial argument is strong because there is immediate return through money saved. Roadside breakdown repairers could even manufacture parts on the way to a vehicle that has communicated directly with a 3D printer on-board the recovery vehicle.

Deploying modular and “cassette” building facade design methodology means buildings can easily be modified to take advantage of new technologies as they arise. In coming years high-performance concrete and steel components will have evolved to become stronger, lighter and more durable.

New building materials will also be developed and faster 3D printers working on- or offsite will make optimised components to be fitted by new types of robots. Many building owners and operators will, by these means, simply adapt, refresh and renew buildings throughout their lives to suit contemporary needs.

In the coming years 3D printing is set to grow exponentially and, as it does so, new industrial opportunities will abound. Correctly positioning a business to capitalise on that prospect presents many exciting ways for enterprises to flourish in this inspiringly innovative technological era.

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Main image: Seen in 2038, at Changsha International Culture and Arts Centre 3D printers are deployed in a Construction Lab to manufacture replacement building components

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