3D Printing

Technology Trigger
UMN Assessment
Doing Well
Time Frame
2 to 5 Years
Last Updated on Sep 12, 2014

Additive manufacturing, more popularly called 3D printing, is a fast-developing technology that can turn digital description files into physical 3D objects in much the same way that inkjet printing can turn digital files into 2D text and graphics on paper or other media. Whereas inkjet printers propel microscopic droplets of ink that—in composite—render images or the glyphs of text on a page, 3D printers lay down melted droplets of material such as plastic or metal powder to render true three-dimensional objects. 3D printing is distinct from "subtractive" technologies such as drilling, cutting, milling or planing a block of material to create a desired object.

Airway Model 3D printed by members of the College of Science & Engineering Shop staff

Airway Model printed by members of the College of Science & Engineering Shop staff

As recently as a few years ago, 3D printing was an interesting, expensive technology restricted to producing small plastic models and objects, often prototypes. However, the price of simple 3D printers is expected to drop from the $1000 (still remarkable price) range to a personally affordable $250 in the next year or so. Additionally, last year a metal-based 3D printer was used to produce working rocket engine injectors (a fuel nozzle that must withstand extremely high temperatures and pressures); the technology can build more than toys.

3D printing of products may change the economics of manufacturing since "economies of scale" requiring the production of millions of identical objects don't apply anymore. A jeweler (for example) will not need to have many designs "in stock"; something a customer selects could be 3D printed on-the-spot. In general, parts will not need to be stocked—one will be able to print the part on demand.

Although still a very young technology, applications already exist in medicine (prosthetic parts or custom implants), dentistry (crowns or teeth without casting), automotive (from fast prototyping to unique part creation), aerospace, industrial design, civil engineering, furniture production and design, art, jewelry as well as hobby/utility uses.

While 3D printing can produce new or novel objects from suitable digital instructions, they can also be used to copy existing objects. Making a copy of a creatively produced object (such as a sculpture, for example) will likely cause you to be in violation of the creator's copyright. Similarly, if an object—or the design on which it is based—has been patented, then dissemination of the digital files for its production and/or prints made from those files would violate that patent.

As with earlier technologies that could make copies (the photocopy machine, the audio tape recorder, the videotape recorder, digital audio and video copied on a computer), resistance may be anticipated from companies or organizations that perceive this as a threat to their business model. Similarly, some government and law enforcement officials feel that 3D printing would make it too easy to obtain items such as guns or other weapons.