3-D Printing — the supply-chain comes to your backyard

I’m hearing a lot about 3-D printing these days and all this conjures (scary) visions about how life would be like in the future. I’m also betting that all the traditional printer manufacturers (HP, Canon, Epson) have 3-D printers in their road maps — and that their R&D facilities are now working on designs and prototypes.

First the ‘scary’ part.

Today, it is possible to print a metal gun (with bullets) using a 3-D printer (http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/08/tech/innovation/3d-printed-metal-gun/. Other sharp implements should be easier to print. When the 3-D printer becomes more easily available, someone could easily print his own weapons at home and sell these in the open market. While we have strict laws that restrict the possession of weapons by citizens, home made printed weapons would make those laws redundant. Worse, I fear that some mad man would clear security checks at an airport and then print his weapons in the loo near the boarding gates.

Now the more positive news.

3-D printing has a number of highly useful applications that will introduce a lot of convenience and save time and money.

Service centers could print spare parts and save consumers the long wait as spares travel down the supply chain from a manufacturer’s warehouse to a retailer near the consumer. I’ve seen people dump old TVs, DVD players and other electronic items because a faulty chip could not be replaced (unavailability of spares).

Astronauts could print parts needed for space stations or spaceships in outer space — so these would not need to be carried on rockets from
earth. That would translate to massive savings in rocket fuel and space missions.

For the frequent traveler, the load in his/her backpack will get lighter. Imagine if we could print our own underwear or clothing!

So I’m going to let my imagination run wild for a moment. In future, you’d carry a smart card that holds the designs or blueprints for whatever you want to print on your 3-D printer. Why, the next James Bond or Mission Impossible movie might have a scene or two about this futuristic fantasy.

There is huge potential in healthcare too. Parts of the skeletal system could be generated on 3-D printers — knee caps, hip bones, ribs, finger bones etc.

Back to reality.

3-D printing is set to transform global supply chains. In aviation, different parts of an aircraft are manufactured in various countries, and then shipped to a central assembly facility. That is a huge logistic challenge that impacts delivery schedules (delays in the 787). With 3-D printing, designs will be beamed across the Internet, and parts will be printed at the central assembly plant itself (remember how robots revolutionized auto manufacturing in Japan in the 80s?).

For 3-D printing to become mainstream, the cost of the technology should decrease. We also need the availability of different composites and materials. For instance, parts for aircraft and spaceships must be strong enough; bone substitutes must be accepted by the human body without adverse side effects.

The day is not far off when 3-D printers will become indispensable machines and an important part of our lives.

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