Shane Wall

3D Printing: More Than Just a New Way of Making Things

We’re already seeing glimpses of the potential of 3D printing. Automobiles and airplanes are using 3D-printed parts that are stronger and lighter than anything made by conventional manufacturing. Disabled children and injured animals are walking on 3D-printed custom prosthetics. Astronauts on the International Space Station can print tools based on digital designs emailed from Earth. And increasingly, medical engineers aim to transform lives by printing replacement body parts using 3D printers and living cells.

As exciting as these applications may be, however, the biggest impact of 3D printers on our daily lives still lies ahead of us. That’s because 3D printing is about far more than just a new way of making things.

In coming weeks and months we’ll be writing and talking a lot about voxels and thermoplastics and prototyping and other technical aspects of our soon-to-arrive HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D Printers. What I want to talk about today, however, is how 3D printing is going to transform and disrupt manufacturing, supply chains, even whole economies, and what it all means … in other words, how 3D printing is going to change the way we and our children will live.

At HP, our mission is to create technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere. To do that we have to understand the socio-economic megatrends that affect where people will live and work.

One of those megatrends is mass urbanization. By 2030, there will be 41 megacities — cities with 10 million or more inhabitants — most of them in Asia. By mid-century more than 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This unprecedented human migration will put extreme pressure on the environment and on the urban infrastructure. The world’s economic infrastructure will have to adapt to this new reality.

3D printing can be a catalyst for that adaptation, along with intelligent industrial robots and the Internet of Things. Together they have the potential to completely reinvent manufacturing to be hyper-global, hyper-local, and hyper-fast. I often refer to this as glocalization.

Let me explain.

The container transport system that today carries over 90 percent of global freight – a system built atop the steamship and locomotive legacies of the First Industrial Revolution — simply won’t be able to carry enough raw materials and finished products in and out of such centers of density.

3D printing enables manufacturing to move closer to the customer. Instead of burning fossil fuels to transport parts and finished products around the world, perfect digital files can be sent to a 3D printer at the speed of light, whether the printer is at a local service bureau or a rural village in Africa. If 3D printing can be brought to scale, it could theoretically decouple energy and CO2 emission from economic activity. According to research, it will reduce carbon footprints for both business and workers which could result in a 5 percent decrease in energy and CO2 emissions from industrial manufacturing by 2025.

3D printing on demand will lessen the need to maintain physical inventories of products and parts, gradually shortening and simplifying the global supply chain, and freeing up money and real estate.

Manufacturing with 3D printers is intrinsically less wasteful and more sustainable. Even the most complex parts can be made using only the essential amount of material. Depending on the material used, parts can be composed of renewable and recyclable feedstock.

The impact on the workforce will be transformative too. Companies will no longer need to chase low-cost labor and assemble parts in different locations far away from where the products are needed. New job opportunities will be created, and the challenge will be to educate and train a new generation of workers for digital manufacturing jobs.

But most exciting of all, 3D printing, along with a broader, long-term vision that we have, one we call Blended Reality, has the potential to unlock the creative potential of every person on the planet. Blended Reality breaks down the barriers between imagination and physical reality. It’s about coupling the democratization of design with the democratization of production to usher in what we think will be the next industrial revolution. A 3D transformation is under way, and 3D printing is a part of it.

Just think: In 30 years we’ll have 1 billion times the computing power for the same cost we get today, as well as ubiquitous connectivity that will put all that power in the hands of everyone, everywhere. If we’re going to solve the grand challenges facing us in the 21st century, we’re going to need to light up human creativity.

Those are just a few of the broader issues we’re thinking about as we get ready to announce our new printers based on Multi Jet Fusion technology. I can’t share details yet; you’ll have to wait for updates from HP over the next few weeks. But I wanted you to know that there are more dimensions to our thinking about 3D printing than just the technology itself.