Thursday, February 19, 2015

The shape of things to come. 3-D technology is changing the way we define printing.

When people think printing, they think Shamrock. Because Shamrock is an industrial printing resource, among our extensive marketing service offerings, some people make the assumption that we’ve got 3-D printers in our warehouses. But there is a misnomer about 3-D printing: It is a new (and expensive) technology that’s used for special applications. 3-D printers use additive manufacturing (AM) technology which creates an object layer by layer. Because it’s controlled and directed by computer software, the printer adds each new layer as a perfect cross-section of that final object. And it builds, or prints, using layers of substrates such as metal, plastic, fabric, foam, etc. It’s an amazing process to watch.
Some industry insiders hype 3-D printing as the technology that will spur the next industrial revolution. That may very well be true. The technology in 3-D printers is being used to create everything from edible chocolate bars at Hershey, to prosthetic human body parts at the University of Tokyo. Consider using a printer to create a human ear: It sounds space-age. But clearly, that reality is not far off.  

Roll back the clock—in the 80’s most of us had never heard of the World Wide Web. 3-D printing technology is revolutionary in much the same way: Our generation will see the growth and development of this technology that will eventually change the way we do business—and the way we live. It’s already taken off: Estimates show that the 3-D printing market will reach $6.9 billion in sales by 2018, up from $3.2 billion this past year.

A friend of mine owns Thogus Products, which is a plastic injection molding company. They have diversified their operations and started RP&M, a 3-D printing company that uses multi-layer 3-D printing to make parts. They’ve invested in machines that handle multiple substrates from plastics to ceramics to metals. They’re seeing more application growth in aerospace, dental and even in the fashion industry. From a budget standpoint, it does make sense to use 3-D to produce one-off pieces instead of creating a mold or other form for single-unit fabrication.

As with most consumable technology, 3-D will continue to evolve and become more cost-efficient. Based on what we are experiencing today, in the future, we’ll all likely have one of these printers in our businesses, and even in our homes.

Where I do see Shamrock incorporating 3-D printing in the future is in helping customers develop prototypes: For applications that would otherwise be cumbersome and time-consuming, 3-D technology could be used to develop packaging and promotional items quickly and more efficiently. Shamrock will continue to connect our customers with emerging technology that is relevant to their businesses. Stay tuned—change is taking shape.