Nowadays it is difficult to imagine a life without printers. We use traditional printers for studying, work, or entertainment almost every day. It is very convenient to have a possibility to print digital information, such as text or image, on paper and then use it for different purposes. Nevertheless, it is much more convenient to have a possibility to print real tangible objects, which can be used in everyday life. The technology of 3D printing gives such possibility and starts a new era of printing, manufacturing, and life.
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The emerging technology of 3D printing is very promising as it opens new possibilities for customization and starts a new era of so called “social manufacturing” (Collaborative Manufacturing. All Together Now, 2012). The main idea of such manufacturing is to establish a framework that will allow customers to create products based on their tastes and preferences. People will buy digital models of products, change and modify them according to their tastes, and then send the information to local 3D printers to get real products. With 3D printers, it will be unnecessary to build large plants to produce some products, which would otherwise pollute the environment and deplete natural resources. This environmentally friendly technology will be much better than the current one, as it requires less raw material, energy, and cost. Furthermore, it makes businesses more flexible because each product item can be manufactured differently without costly retooling of company’s equipment. Specialists have been using 3D printers for more than ten years to develop prototypes cheaply and quickly before manufacturing real products at the plants. Yet, it was impossible to manufacture these products completely with 3D printers only. Now 3D printers are cheaper and more efficient than in the past, and a switch to another manufacturing method can be done.
There are few existing companies, which already present a new look for businesses based on real participation of potential customers in the process of developing products. Quirky and Shapeways are these companies. They are available through internet websites, where users with bright ideas can present their own concepts to be evaluated and influenced by other users. When the idea is really good, the process of manufacturing starts. First, the prototype is designed by a product-development team. Users can contribute online towards a product’s design, packaging, and marketing, and even help set a price for it. When the final design is ready, companies use their own facilities (3D printers and others) or look for suitable manufacturers to produce these products and sell them. This concept is beneficial for all parties. First of all, authors of the models get a possibility to bring their ideas to life. Furthermore, they get royalties if the product is manufactured. Additionally, people can really influence the products they need. Moreover, they directly demonstrate what they need and in what amount. As a result, companies can evaluate the demand and respond to it properly, creating products, which are really good, and rejecting ideas that seem to be unpopular.
The History of 3D Printing
3D printing has been around about 30 years, dating back to the 1980s, when the technologies “used include fusing a layer of powdered material with a laser, dispensing melted plastic through nozzles, and photo-curing resin” (Bird, 2012). Nevertheless, 3D printers were very expensive, sluggish, and inefficient, and the industry was developing very slowly at that times. Its rapid growth started only in the beginning of the twenty-first century, when many barriers were broken, prices have fallen down, and the technology became available to people. Nowadays it is very easy to buy a personal 3D printer, which can be used for different purposes. The possibility of widespread private use of this technology has significant potential to change the way in which goods are created and produced. Consequently, it is believed that “the explosion of 3D printing from the workplace into the home will be far faster than it was for 2D printing technologies” (Gehl, 2012).
3D Printing Process
The process of 3D printing involves a few steps and is similar to traditional printing. First, the prototype is developed with special software. The model has to be in three dimensions to be printed in 3D. The process of model construction can take from several hours to several days or even weeks, depending on the methods and complexity of the project. That is the sophisticated modeling technology that restrains the popularity of 3D printing. Nevertheless, an increasing number of special software programs is already available to customers. Some of these programs are so simple that it does not take to be a designer or an architect to use them.
When the model is ready, it is transformed into horizontal cross-sections, which have to be very thin. These are upcoming layers that compound the whole model, when they are stacked In the next stage, the data is sent to the printer, which analyses it and starts printing. 3D printer lays down successive layers of powder or sheet material, and in this way builds up the model from a series of cross sections. This is called “additive processes” during which the object is created by laying down layers of material. This can be compared with traditional machining techniques (subtractive processes), which use such methods as cutting and drilling. The main advantage of additive manufacturing is the possibility to create models of almost any shapes and complexities. Nevertheless, this process may take a lot of time, depending on the size and form of the certain model.
A Perfect Solution
3D printing is a very valuable technology because it can nearly solve the problem of product’s transportation. The real example is that even now it is possible to download data of some things, parts, or products, modify them with special software, and print them with a desktop 3D printer. Such technology is very valuable and beneficial, as it can help save time and money. This is just a simple evidence, which clearly demonstrates a potential of 3D printing.
This technology can be used, for example, in the aerospace industry. If something is broken in the space station, there will be no need to launch a missile to deliver necessary details. The digital model of such details can be sent as intangible data, and then it can be printed directly on the space station using 3D printers. Such technology will first of all save a lot of money, and it will make space industry more flexible and efficient. Furthermore, it can be used on Earth, for example, during expeditions to undiscovered locations. As a result, the technology of 3D printing can cause a significant move forward for science.
Uniqueness of the Technology
The technology of 3D printing allows manufacturing products of a very intricate structure, which “are impossible to be built in any other way” (Harouni, 2012). In this way, it is possible to create moving components, hinges, or parts inside parts, which could have been created only with manual labor. Furthermore, some of these products could not have been created even manually because of their great complexity and significantly tiny sizes. As 3D printing may also be used for manufacturing big details, which can be as high as three meters, this is a unique technology that can produce both microstructures and huge objects (or even buildings in the future).
3D printing can also be used in many industries, as it opens new perspectives of creating highly-detailed things. The technology is already used in jewelry, architecture, engineering, footwear, aerospace, education, industrial design, automotive, geographic information systems, civil engineering, and many others fields.
The technology of 3D printing may be particularly valuable in the medical industries, especially in dentistry and surgery. Very important researches that are taken into the technology of printing human organs using living cells can become a trigger for the revolution in treatment of many diseases. The researches into 3D printing technology result in development of very thin additive layers, and, consequently, in creating new applications of this technology. Even now 3D printing technology gives possibilities to create implants or teeth of high quality, which can be used to save lives of millions of people.
Nevertheless, the biggest perspective of 3D printing technology is the possibility to change the landscape of manufacturing and provide customers with a new, significantly higher level of customization.
Though 3D printing technology is generally very beneficial for the society, it can cause negative consequences. First of all, if there is a rapid switch to manufacturing using 3D printers, traditional plants will have to be closed one by one. This will result in the increase of unemployment of workers, which probably will not be able to find new jobs without retraining. Moreover, this technology can become a threat to entire economies with low-cost labor forces, such as India and China. Their competitive advantage of cheap production costs may be eliminated by the technology of 3D printing, as it is considered to be more efficient and even less expensive in the future.
Significant piracy threat is another urgent issue. As the emerging technology of social manufacturing will enable people to buy digital models of real products for their following printing, it will also enable people to steal such models and distribute them for free. Nowadays, the same happens to music, movies, and software, and if the technology of social manufacturing will really be implemented in the future, digital piracy seems to be inevitable. It is difficult to estimate the landscape of such piracy, but it can really cause reduction in many businesses’ revenues, as the market would be saturated with free prototypes of many products. That is why there is a need to develop international legislative system to avoid or diminish possible negative effects of 3D printing technology, as these effects can be very harmful to the society.
The emerging technology of 3D printing can have a great impact on the society in terms of possible changes in business, customization, and information transmission. It can affect a wide range of industries ranging from agriculture to the aerospace industry, causing considerable improvements in the way these industries work. Furthermore, the technology may affect almost all people on Earth, both children and adults, as the society is expected to use 3D printing technology very often and very intensively. Consequently, 3D printing is a real future that will definitely come and change human lives in just a few years.
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