How disruptive 3D printing can be

In the early days of 2014 there is none without announcement of new amazing possibilities offered by 3D printing. The new additive manufacturing techniques – adding material layer by layer – are accessible to a growing number of players to ever lower costs and with increasingly diverse materials.

The new possibilities are both exciting and disturbing because they will lead to changes that we should anticipate.

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For the best and the worst

Among the possible applications of 3D printing we find ingenious prosthetics whose cost are ridiculously low, allowing more disabled people to improve their lives, especially those who could not afford or had no access to prosthetics.

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3D printing will not be limited to produce cheaper affordable (expendable?) prosthetics, but will certainly boost how to design prosthetics in general, integrating the new possibilities offered by these additive manufacturing techniques, new materials and unleash creativity of clever amateur designers and other generous or disinterested persons (crowdsourcing).

Unfortunately, there are also more dubious applications such as printing perfectly functional and potentially undetectable firearms.

If the development of affordable prosthetics is part of the generous idea to offer a significant improvement of living comfort to people, making uncontrollable firearms obeys motivations of an entirely different nature. While few people will complain about the proliferation of prostheses, we can bet that the proliferation of firearms suddenly made accessible to virtually anyone will cause legitimate fears and other reactions.

The latter should concern the authorities, both to prevent explosion of gun crimes as well as accidents that gunsmiths’ apprentices may suffer or cause.

Transformation and disappearance of trades

Let’s stay positive and consider the peaceful applications of 3D printing and take the example of figurines collections.

So far the business of collectible figurine such as comic book or movie heroes was based on the ability to create the original model, than a mold to produce copies and distribute the figurines. With 3D printing the mold becomes superfluous, just as manufacturing and distribution since the collector equipped with suitable 3D printer can print it himself in a specialized store or even at home. One can theoretically print infinite number of figurines once he got the model’s digital file.

This business is likely to evolve in creating the digital files for 3D printed figurines, offer application downloading and the ability to edit the original file with dedicated tools (apps) .

Thus, just as the music consumption is largely freed from physical media and thereby has completely undermined the business model of the sector, a number of sectors should know a similar revolution.

For some of them IMHO, too little attention is paid to technological developments that still seem far from their trades or years away.

Take the case of orthopedic insoles. So far it is the responsibility of a podiatrist (3 years minimum of specialized studies in France) that manufactures insoles by cutting, forming and pasting various materials such as leather, cork, etc. Consequently, these insoles are expensive, often unique and moderately durable.

Here 3D printing allows customization of insoles not only from the perspective of correction but also from the point of view of the look like color choices and possible multiple copies for matching various shoes. A feature the ladies in particular will appreciate.

Allegedly the benefits of these new printed soles are multiple: cheaper, washable, anti -microbial, colors and shapes to choose and more.

If this trend continues, what will happen to podiatrists? Will they convert themselves as creators of digital models for insoles that patients will print themselves? Do they / will they have the skills? Will a podiatrist still be necessary or is it a 3D scanner (already existing) coupled to smart software that may determine the forms to print for adequate correction?

These questions show how a specialized profession may be affected by technological innovation.

After soles, think of dentures and braces  – already 3D printable – and all the other examples of products, which certainly become cheaper for their users but will also come at some social cost.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

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