A few years ago, 3D printing was apparently set to change the world. We all watched in awe as printers jerkily produced wobbly-looking bits of plastic.
3D printing has rapidly improved since then, but the general public have lost interest. Why? Partly because people have got bored of hearing about it (see: Gartner's Hype Cycle), and partly because 3D printing did not fulfil its commercial promise fast enough for mainstream users.
Desktop enthusiasts, excited by the idea of printing out whatever new toys they wanted, were disappointed by early mainstream 3D printer models. Not only were these machines confusing
for lay people, they also had a tendency to break (a lot). And even if users could get their printers to work properly, there wasn't much they could make, besides pretty generic toys and moulds.
Basically, early mainstream printers did not deliver upon inflated expectations, and the public were disillusioned. But that's not to say that 3D printing has disappeared, nor that it's failing to fulfil its potential. Far from it.
Economists and industry experts have consistently maintained that 3D printing will be one of (if not the) major players in a fourth Industrial Revolution. And why wouldn't it? 3D printing could slash production costs to shreds while simultaneously pushing production capacity through the roof. Automated 3D printers could work all night and all day, with minimal need for human interference. 3D printed prototypes of new machines could be produced, tested, and refined over and over again in a very short space of time. While desktop users may not yet be able to print themselves a new car, the potential of 3D printing remains breathtaking. And many believe that the technology may finally be impressive enough for serious investment.
What 3D printers have quietly been doing while the public has been looking elsewhere is impressive.
In China, researchers have successfully 'bio-printed' living human organs.
NASA have used a 3D-printed rocket engine to send a rocket into orbit.
A 3D printer designed to work in zero gravity has been installed on the International Space Station.
3D-printed pills are far more porous than conventionally produced pills. This makes 3D-printed pills to carry higher drug doses in smaller, easily-dissoluble formats.
3D printing is increasingly being used to quickly create perfectly customised medical prosthetics.
The automotive and aerospace industries now regularly use 3D-printed components.
Prototypes and scale models are often now produced via 3D printing, speeding up (and cutting the cost of) the design process in a huge number of industries.
Scientists and industrialists worldwide believe that 3D printing may now be growing into its potential. We recently learned that industrial tech giant Siemens has invested £27 million in a 3D printing plant in Worcester. And NASA have not been shy about their enthusiasm for 3D printing. As well as using 3D printers to build rockets, they believe that 3D printing could advance space exploration enormously. For example, it could enable astronauts (or automated space craft) to print our new equipment themselves rather than having to re-supply from Earth, and it could even help us to inhabit new planets!
But before that, what can we expect in the commercial sphere? Grit your teeth, folks, because 3D-printed selfies look set to be the next big thing...