3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been available for commercial use since 1986. Early on, 3D printing took on a hobbyist role. Now, however, industries have begun using additive manufacturing to their advantage.

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Large industries such as automotive, aerospace and medicine may see a steep rise in the use of additive manufacturing in the coming years. Many companies have already been using 3D printing to make models and prototypes of products, whether that is buildings or cars. More recently, however, companies such as Cadillac have been using 3D printing as a way of streamlining end-use elements for cars. With both plastic and metal 3D printed parts, Celestiq, Cadillac’s sedan, is a lighter car that saves hundreds of thousands of dollars in manufacturing costs.

Related: New 3D printing technology uses soundwaves

Additive manufacturing

On the whole, additive manufacturing is more sustainable than other production methods. In industries like aerospace, producing more lightweight parts improves fuel efficiency because it requires less fuel to propel a lighter vehicle. Additive manufacturing also drastically cuts down repair time which saves money and improves efficiency in other ways. From start-ups to large companies, 3D printing is allowing innovation to occur by producing prototypes on-site, optimizing design and consolidating production for easy changes.

Additive manufacturing is changing the healthcare industry with the ability to make customizable prosthetics, implants, surgical instruments and even dentures. The ability to print these products at hospitals and doctor’s offices allows for easy point-of-care, making it easier for patients to get the care they need without going to another facility or waiting long periods of time between their diagnosis and care. AI is also aiding in the speed at which these products can be produced. However, 4D printing may even change the game further by creating implants that can change with a patient’s body over time or hydrogels that respond to stimuli to release a drug as needed.

From a financial standpoint, industries stand to gain a lot from 3D printing processes, but customers will gain independence too. With the ability to print spare parts right at home or in the office, consumers can save time and money that hiring someone to repair something or buying a new part would have otherwise cost. Additionally, they extend the life of the original product by easily replacing a piece of the whole rather than getting rid of the object altogether.

3D printing in fashion

3D printing is not just used in manufacturing industries where objects are being created. More and more people have begun using 3D printing in industries such as food and fashion. While footwear brands have toyed with 3D printing for years, there has not been a flourishing market for 3D-printed shoes. However, the possibilities with such footwear may be endless.

There are risks in the fashion and footwear industries when considering a long-term move to 3D printing. This change would mean an overhaul of design and production methods with an upfront cost of purchasing new machines and materials. It is a risk without guaranteed payoff, but the future benefits of recyclable shoes that can be customized to each consumer without producing new molds and be easily repaired are incredible. It is unique and it is a business risk, but it could be part of saving the planet from the thousands of shoes that end up in landfills every year.

3D printing food

Even more radical is 3D-printed food. Beginning with a paste-like consistency, purees are emitted from a syringe-like object and then the printer constructs shapes and designs fed to it from a computer. This process is not easily scalable, but restaurants, bakeries and food manufacturers are not shying away from trying out the technology. These make for experiences that are exclusive with gourmet food customizable to the diner, but the equipment is expensive and, so far, the results are limited by the ingredients available as a paste.

At Columbia University, however, researchers have begun using lasers to cook the food as it prints, opening up the world of baking and more elaborate dishes. In one experiment, they produced a slice of vegan cheesecake in 30 minutes. While the researchers believe the technology will continue to grow and gain interest, it is currently much too expensive for the average person to use on a regular basis.

What is the future for 3D printing?

Additive manufacturing and its ease of use have opened up a can of worms that may just be the next big thing in consumerism. For better or for worse, civilians in Myanmar are 3D printing guns to continue fighting in the civil war against the military-run government that has fighter jets and firearms on its side. Homes in Texas are being built with 3D-printed walls creating sustainable, efficient and customizable houses using robotic construction systems. Not all creations are so serious with toys, models and guitars being created for play and display.

From packaging and furniture to toys and homes, additive manufacturing has become a race against time and creativity as laymen and companies figure out what to do next. What we do know is that 3D manufacturing is a growing industry with a wide range of uses such as food for NASA space trips and prosthetics here on Earth. Additive manufacturing has the fascinating potential to be both sustainable and engaging.

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