The future of 3-D printing is excelling at a fast pace, evolving drastically only within the the past few years. Recently, a 3-D printer created a heart replica to help save the life of a nine month old baby. This was the very first time a full sized 3-D printed model was used for a very complicated open heart surgery! The effect of 3-D printing will begin to shape our daily, but is this a good thing?

3-D printing, or better known in the manufacturing world as additive manufacturing process, is a technique that layers material to grow a product. The number of printing materials available is constantly growing and currently includes thermoplastics, edible materials, rubber, clay, porcelain, metal, ceramic powders, plaster, paper and even human tissue.

Growing Creativity

3-D printing technology has been around for 30 years, but recently printers and printing materials became an affordable option for businesses. As the price dropped, creativity grew. Today, companies in a variety of industries, including architecture, construction, automotive, dental and medical, engineering, biotechnology, fashion and education are experimenting with using 3-D printing to manufacture end products. This innovative practice comes with its share of benefits and risks.

The Benefits

3-D printing has a number of benefits:

  • Less waste: Unlike more traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques that remove material by cutting or sawing to form a product, 3-D printing builds the product from the ground up, resulting in significantly less material waste.
  • Reduced overhead: Printing materials and a CAD file are all that is required to create a product. It’s not necessary to purchase molds, create custom manufacturing materials, hire laborers or even have a designated manufacturing facility.
  • Intricate details: Almost any shape imaginable can be printed, including shapes with complex detail that would be costly and difficult—in some cases too difficult—to create with subtractive manufacturing.
  • One-of-a-kind products: Some products, such as hearing aids and prosthetic limbs, are time-consuming and expensive to create with traditional manufacturing techniques because they must be customized to fit a single end user.
  • Reduced warehousing costs: Offering long-term warranties for replacement parts is much more efficient for companies that utilize 3-D printing. The company can simply save a CAD file for each product part and then print the part on an as-needed basis instead of storing older parts in a warehouse.

The Risks

It’s also important to recognize the potential risks that this new technology poses:

  • Copyright infringement: Computer-aided design (CAD) files that infringe on patents and design rights are already beginning to show up on the Internet. The piracy of digital design files will likely be widespread and difficult to police. Companies will need to insure themselves against this risk and find innovative ways to guard intellectual property.
  • Compromised supply chain: Widely available CAD files mean that compromised parts could enter the supply chain. Even if a company is not using 3-D printing in its own operations, it is still at risk of manufacturing products with defective or unsafe 3-D-printed components, and of being held liable for the resulting damage.
  • Exposure to ultra-fine particles (UFPs): Printers without proper ventilation can expose users to the UFPs that are released during the printing process. Inhaled UFPs can cause adverse health effects, including an increased risk of asthma, heart disease and stroke.
  • Global public safety: Currently, no legislation exists to regulate 3-D printing, so anyone, anywhere can download anything. In 2012, Defense Distributed, a company based in the United States, created a CAD file for a 3-D printable gun. Soon after, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security called for the file to be taken down, but not before it had been downloaded by more than 100,000 people in places as far away as Germany, Spain and Brazil. There are more opportunities for obtaining banned products with 3-D printing.

The Future

Like any technology, 3-D printing is not without risks, many of which are yet to be discovered. Despite these risks, companies are looking to 3-D printing technology to rethink processes and improve business operations. Industry experts predict that 3-D printing will transform manufacturing as we know it. 

Exciting projects like rebuilding coral reefs, growing functioning organs and body parts and replicating priceless artifacts for scientific study will continue to capture the attention of the public and encourage further innovation. Have you considered the impact of 3-D technology on your business? Contact Vanner Insurance Agency today at 716-688-8888 to learn more.