In this era of disruptive innovation and technological megatrends, one of the most game-changing opportunities centers on 3D printers (printing). The idea of 3D printing itself can be mystifying. We see stories about 3D printers constructing entire homes or 3D printers creating edible pizza, chocolate mousse, and dumplings. The potential seems endless, yet 3D printing hasn’t advanced as rapidly as some experts expect.

Because of this, it is useful to analyze this megatrend in more detail. Specifically, we are going to look at the current state of 3D printing, use cases today, and the future of 3D printing itself.

3D Printing: Where We Are Now

The promise of 3D printing has been to create real-life, tangible objects from a computer-aided design model. With 3D printing, manufacturers could create intricate shapes and designs that would be difficult (or even impossible) using conventional manufacturing processes. The promise of 3D printing also centers on ease of customization, fast prototyping, and less waste.

According to Sculpteo’s latest edition of a study called The State of 3D Printing, manufacturers across the world are increasingly relying on 3D printing as part of their overall manufacturing processes. Compared to 38.7 percent in 2018, 51 percent of the respondents are using 3D printing in production use. The most common applications for 3D printers among these manufacturers include proof of concept, prototyping, production, and mass production. Ultimately, manufacturers that have joined the 3D printing revolution are focused on accelerating product development. This makes sense as 3D printing, at its core, lets users cheaply and quickly launch product experiments. That said, one of the key challenges facing manufacturers is quality control. Nearly half of the respondents in the study said that as 3D printing becomes an important part of their processes, their customers expect a higher level of quality control that is currently present.

A Diverse Collection of Current Applications

As you can see, 3D printing has become a critical tool in the manufacturing sector. The rapid prototyping and easy customization features are a godsend for manufacturers that are attempting to innovate and improve their operations. As just one example, MAHLE, which is an automotive parts manufacturer, was able to use 3D printing to create an entirely custom fixture for its assembly line. Instead of having to wait weeks for a new part, MAHLE was able to quickly fix the problem, saving both time and money.

While 3D printing is especially popular within the manufacturing community, other sectors and industries have embraced this game-changing technology. In the medical field, for instance, 3D printed prosthetics are quickly improving. 3D printed prosthetics have helped everyone from children quickly outgrowing their old prosthetics to amputees in third-world countries. 3D printers are being used in the education sector, as they help students create tools like frog dissection kits. 3D printing is even being used in the fashion industry. Jewelers have used 3D printers to experiment with designs and to affordably produce custom designs.

The bottom line? While manufacturers are some of the power users of 3D printing, actors in many other industries have also bought into this megatrend.

The Future

According to well-known futurist Peter Diamandis, the future of 3D printing is certainly going to be exciting. While 3D printing rates have been slower than expected, speeds are projected to increase by 50 to 100 times in the next five years. Faster printing speeds will unlock even more prototyping, experimentation, and game-changing products.

Along with faster speeds, the next five years will bring the proliferation of metal 3D printers. These metal 3D printers, according to Diamandis, will overtake plastics, thereby eliminating a significant amount of waste on our planet. These metal 3D printers will be especially helpful in creating jewelry, kitchenware, and even car and airplane parts. 

Finally, 3D printers will leverage natural language processing. Instead of needing to program instructions for the 3D printer, you will be able to simply talk to the printer. Using artificial intelligence, the 3D printer will be able to understand exactly what you want and develop 3D printed objects per your specifications.

The Promise of 3D Printing

In sum, the present and future of 3D printing are tremendously exciting. It is truly a paradigm-shifting technology that will change the way we work and play. To put it simply, I can’t wait to see what happens next.