The billion dollar industry most don’t know exists … 3D printing

3D printing is not new. In fact, this fast and cheap form of Additive Manufacturing has been a reality for over a decade.


What is it ?

A 3D object is “printed” by laying down successive layers of material giving product developers the ability to quickly create objects made of several materials in a single build process. This offers super-rapid prototyping from CAD drawing to the physical object.

To those not involved with the industry, it doesn’t sound very exciting put like that but watch video to see it in action:

The printer in the video is from Z Corporation. Established in the mid 90s, Z Corp supplies technology to industries as diverse as defence, education, sportswear, automotive, consumer electronics, healthcare and entertainment.

Z Corp’s printers are available around the £10k level. Expensive for an individual but peanuts for a design department in private or public sector.


Why should we care ?

To the clinician … this technology offers the possibility to create bespoke models of, say, a pelvic bone to plan and practice a major surgery … before putting the patient under the knife.

It allows the creation of simple structures – like blood vessels –  to repair or replace ailing body parts or even printing artificial organs that reduce the risk of rejection by the patient (a major issue/risk/cost of organ transplantation being the discovery of a suitable organ and the immunosuppressive drug regime needed post-op’): see Anthony Atala at TED.

To the military … there are serious cost benefits both from the perspective of initial construction ( blog entry) and, perhaps more strikingly, in the simplification of military logistics: replicating that spare part for a truck in the battlefield is going to be cheaper/faster than taking spares to cover all eventualities or waiting for a logistics shipment.

To the criminal … this is a tech’ to be exploited. Worried that someone might copy your keys? … then don’t let a criminal even photograph them !

To the environmentalist“The advent of additive manufacturing technologies presents a number of opportunities that have the potential to greatly benefit designers, and contribute to the sustainability of products. [The following] paper examines how aspects of additive manufacturing, from a sustainable design perspective could become a useful tool in the arsenal to bring about the sustainable design of consumer products.” (CCSEnet paper)


To the hobbyist … this is a fantastic playground for inventiveness:

  • RepRap is a free desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap can print those parts, RepRap is a self-replicating machine – one that anyone can build.

To the researcher … there is a way to go before this technology is fully exploited:

  • The Additive Manufacturing Research Group at Loughborough University was the world’s first research group to undertake systematic research in this field and continues to set the agenda in terms of its research approach.
  • Exeter University launched the £2.6m Centre for Additive Layer Manufacturing in September 2011. The centre will enable businesses, entrepreneurs and researchers heavily subsidised access, giving smaller businesses in the West of England access to world-class facilities at affordable prices.


To us … the changes will be subtle. Fast prototyping, reducing the time to market, home “printing” and major positive impact to many businesses’ supply chain. 3D printing is going to impact us all … perhaps sooner than we may think.


Further reading/viewing:

1) – Olivia Solon:

“Thanks to technologies such as 3D printing, the process of boundaries between making and manufacturing have dissolved, meaning that hobbyists can now mass produce in a way that they never could before, according to Chris Anderson, Wired’s US editor-in-chief” 6th November 2011” Wired article/video

2) “3D printing for all!” (

3) “Individuality drive and 3D tech make firms go bespoke” (

4) “The rise of additive manufacturing” (


About jon.d.carroll

Father, husband, would-be physicist and occasional entrepreneur. Science, computing, finance, business and issues around hearing loss float my boat View all posts by jon.d.carroll

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