Does 3D Printing Have a Future?

I have been following the additive manufacturing (or do you prefer to say 3D printing?) revolution for several years. Despite all the hype and hoopla, I’ve tried to maintain a clear perspective on the topic.

I have seen the technology in operation several times in the past. While it’s impressive, I’ve remained somewhat skeptical about whether 3D printing will break out from the realm of geeky hobbyists experimenting in a basement or garage. Will it ever burst into the manufacturing mainstream and be used to produce high-volume commercial parts?

The other day, I had a chance to immerse myself in the additive manufacturing world during a conference in Chicago. The Inside 3D Printing event featured some of the leading proponents behind this innovation.

I came away intrigued by the long-term potential of additive manufacturing. The sessions I participated in explored some thought-provoking topics. Besides its promising role in manufacturing, 3D printing has tremendous potential in diverse fields such as fashion, architecture and construction (imagine “printing” bricks and concrete).

However, the most interesting session that I attended focused on printed electronics. “Printing simplifies making electronics,” explains Leon Wong, director of PARC Inc., a technology innovation center in Palo Alto, CA. “Additive manufacturing cuts down the number of steps required to produce electronics. On the other hand, conventional lithography is a subtractive process that has lots of extra steps and waste, requiring extra production time.”

According to Wong, printed electronics are already used for diverse applications such as small antennas, batteries, displays and sensors. “The technology compliments conventional electronics in low-performance and low-resolution applications.

“Printed electronics is a big opportunity to put intelligence anywhere, such as on windows, in building walls and in vehicles,” adds Wong. “Printed integrated components are coming soon, including touchless keypads, flexible displays, printed solar cells and automotive seat-pressure sensors.”

Although continuous improvement is still needed with novel materials and innovative process technologies, Wong predicts the future looks bright for printed electronics (PE). “There’s a future convergence coming in which integrated 3D and PE printers will create smart objects, such as bandages that offer medical diagnostics,” he explains.

Wong believes that printed electromechanical items are not that far off. “Mechanical and electronics manufacturing will all occur under one roof some day,” he says. “That will result in hybrid products that disrupt traditional supply chains.”

The “holy grail” of printed electronics is a printable spacecraft. Wong and his colleagues are currently working with engineers at Boeing and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop flexible electronic platforms that could be manufactured and deployed in space on future missions.

The goal of the far-out project is to utilize the commercial technology of printed electronics to design and fabricate an entire end-to-end functional spacecraft. The technical challenge of the concept is to “apply printed electronics in a multifunctional platform by implementing every subsystem that a spacecraft might need—from scientific sensors to data downlinks—and have it survive and function in a space environment.”

Do you think additive manufacturing and 3D printing has down-to-earth potential? Are you currently experimenting with it? Will this technology change the way your company designs and builds products over the next 10 years?

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