3D printing is poised to transform the world as we know it. Consumer goods will be personalised and produced on demand, while manufacturers will be able to use 3D printing to come up with radical new designs for everyday objects. But how will this happen, and when?
The ultimate goal of 3D printing is to give us a Star Trek-style replicator, where you can order, for example, a hot drink and the machine will assemble it for you, atom-by-atom, explained Marcel Slot – the coordinator of the EU-funded Diginova project – in a Horizon podcast.
However, don’t throw out your kettle just yet. The project forecasts that we’ll have to wait for a while before we can make a replicator.
In the meantime, though, we’ll be able to embed electronic components into 3D-printed devices, create made-to-measure bones using live cells, and in just two decades we’ll be able to start printing our own homes, Diginova believes.
The project brought together 20 research institutes and companies to compile a roadmap to analyse exactly what the future holds for digital manufacturing.
As well as 3D printing, it also looked at digital 2D printing, printed electronics and smart lighting, and how they could converge in future.
‘If you bring these communities together, you start seeing the enormous advantages of convergence of these fields,’ said Slot.
But how long will it be until we have embedded electronics, made-to-measure replacement bones and 3D-printed houses? We’ve brought together some of the best predictions into an interactive timeline looking at what the future of 3D printing could hold:
At the moment, the biggest problem is that 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it’s known in the industry, is slow and expensive, and it is mostly used by big companies to make prototypes.
However, things are poised to change. The technology is becoming much better, and cheaper. And on top of that, researchers are developing ways to combine 3D printing with other techniques so that electronics and fibre optics can be embedded within devices.
‘There is another set of new products to be discovered basically which have these features in them, and which are not around at the moment, of course, because they cannot be made via conventional technologies,’ said Frits Feenstra, coordinator of the EU-funded SASAM project. ‘People are working on that now.’
The SASAM project focussed on working out what standards and regulations are needed to drive the 3D printing industry forward, and Feenstra believes that the 3D printing sector will really take off in one or two years’ time when the basic standards are in place.
In order to work out what kind of research is required to push forward 3D printing, industry and policymakers have come together as part of the Additive Manufacturing Platform to make recommendations. The document, called a Strategic Research Agenda, suggests things like looking for new materials that would be as strong as cast metal when 3D printed, and teaching university students about 3D printing.
The EU has identified 3D printing as one of the technologies that will drive forward the development of future products and services.
It started funding research into 3D printing during the first ever research funding round, which ran from 1984 to 1987.
Under the latest round of research funding, which ran from 2007 to 2013, it spent over EUR 160 million on over 60 research projects in 3D printing.
Under Horizon 2020, the funding round that runs from 2014 to 2020, it plans to continue funding 3D printing, and it is asking researchers to submit their proposals.
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