Millennium Post

Printing gets a new dimension

3D printing is an emerging technology often compared to the Internet and computers in its ability to change the world. A 3D printer can create three dimensional objects by laying down thin, successive layers of plastic, metal or even live cells in the pattern specified by a computer-developed digital design. All one needs is a 3D printer, a filament (raw material such as plastic) and a digital design. The technology has grown enormously in the past couple of years, piggybacking on open source designs (licence-free resources).

According to a March 2014 report by international market analysis company Canalys, the size of the market for 3D printers, associated materials and services will rise to $3.8 billion in 2014 and to $16.2 billion by 2018. This is a compound annual growth rate of 45.7 per cent from 2013 to 2018. The industry is expected to grow at a faster pace because many of the patents on the initial technologies are set to expire in 2014 and 2015.

It is likely that most of this growth is driven by the use of this technology in innovation. ‘All of us have ideas but we do not have access to technology. 3D printing allows innovators to make prototypes which they can show to investors,’ says Vijay Varada, CEO and director of Fracktal Works Pvt Ltd, a start-up launched by the Manipal Institute of Technology, Karnataka. The technology cuts down the time taken from conceiving an idea to developing a prototype. Changes in prototype designs, too, can be made in hours. ‘Everyone, be it architects, hobbyists, doctors, jewellers, engineering students, automotive industry or researchers, will end up using it,’ says Vishesh Shishodia, co-founder of 3DPrintronics, a 3D printing service provider based in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. While most users in India depend on open source technologies, the market has become viable for international players too. Zalak Shah, research analyst with Gartner Inc, one of the world’s leading information technology research and advisory companies, says that in the past 12 months, major companies like MakerBot and Stratasys have entered the market.

Printers made by such companies cost over Rs 10 lakh while do-it-yourself-kits based on open source technologies cost between Rs 60,000 and Rs 90,000.

The technology is not only about profits. Experts point out its potential in saving the environment. ‘3D printers allow fabrication of complex geometries with no waste,’ say Joshua Pearce, associate professor at the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab, Michigan Technological University, US. You can make a mostly hollow object with just the right structural support, he explains. One can make products at home and avoid transportation and packaging. His team did an economic study where they chose 20 common household objects and showed that printing them with existing open source designs could result in savings between $300 and $2,000. ‘People will do this to save money and the environmental benefits are a bonus,’ says Pearce. The analysis has been published in the July 2013 issue of Mechatronics. Pearce’s group has also shown that recycled plastic, such as discarded milk containers can be used for printing. The team developed an open-source RecycleBot which turns waste plastic into 3D printer filament. While normal plastic filament costs $35/kg or more, the recycled filament is just around $0.10/kg. Pearce calls them ‘fair trade filament’.

The recycling process uses about 1/10th the energy needed to acquire commercial 3D filament. Details of the research are available in the March 2013 issue of Rapid Prototyping. ‘I think this holds a lot of promise for developing countries to leap frog the entire industrial revolution and go straight to commons based-distributed manufacturing of open source appropriate technologies,’ says Pearce.

As to whether the technology will help save the environment, Shishodia says that it is difficult to assess because very few studies exist on the subject. But it will not harm the environment, he says.
By arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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