Not many people will know this, but 3D printing has been around for 26 years. However, it’s only recently that it has seen a surge in popularity, mostly because of improved technology and a drop in costs, making it accessible for artists, designers and entrepreneurs.
3D printing is the process whereby a virtual blueprint of the object is created in a design file using specific software, and is then printed into a 3-dimensional physical shape.
Pierre Becker, founder of the Cape Town based Skeg, a 3D design and manufacturing company, believes that the 3D printing trend has the potential to disrupt the tech and manufacturing industry just as iTunes did when it came onto the scene in 2003.
The same way that iTunes changed the record industry by making music available online, and thereby changing how music is distributed. 3D printing is expected to do the same with the manufacturing industry, with individuals being able to print their own personalised products rather than purchasing a standard product at a store.
3D printing also has the potential to impact entrepreneurs and innovators.
According to Becker, 3D printing will firstly, reduce or even eliminate the shipping costs of manufactured goods. Secondly, for entrepreneurs and SMEs who have limited financial resources, 3D printing means they will be able to create prototypes themselves and even do small-scale manufacturing of their own products.
Becker gives an example of a toy designer, who because of 3D printing, will be able to offer customers toy designs which they can print themselves, “without worrying about scale or distribution deals,” he says.
A local example is Cape Town based financial startup, iKhokha which launched in 2014. iKhokha’s chip and PIN card reader plugs into a smartphone to process card payments. The company used Skeg to print the prototype of their device (pictured left). The product was thereafter refined and manufactured for retail.
The future is here
Currently, 3D printing services are being used to create lighter airplane parts, aerodynamic car bodies and even custom prosthetic limbs. In the future, it may even be possible for the military to print replacement parts for their equipment right on the battlefield instead of having to rely on limited spares. This is according to a special issue of Army Technology, which reveals that 3D printing will be used to optimise US army operations, from weaponry to medicine and even food.
Inside the home, Becker sees it having a similarly major impact.
“The future of 3D printing in consumers’ lives will see 3D printers becoming a common household item, with people printing shoes, furniture and spectacle frames at home as easily as documents,” Becker says.