I spent a frustrating few days at the World Printing Industry Showcase in Beijing this weekend. As an old-timer of the printing industry, I simply didn’t recognize the place anymore – so much has the face of what I thought to be ‘printing’ changed.
This is the same industry fair that just a short ten years ago would have attracted the best of the packaging, newspaper and magazine industry. Now all that has changed. I was surrounded by doctors, surgeons, electronics and automotive engineers and architects.
On show were devices that could print virtually anything – replacement bones, chips, display screens, some food items and a new fuel filter for your car!
The revolution in 3-D printing technologies has come a very long way. It has also come out of the ‘factory’ and into the home. Sony showed their first molecular assembler for the home – they say that “within a year it will be able to assemble a cheeseburger in your kitchen.” Personal devices now have capabilities that would have been unimaginable at an industrial level a decade ago.
Welcome to the new Industrial Revolution. The ‘old’ manufacturing of gadgets and appliances will never be the same again, and farmers better watch their backs.
ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be
3-D prototyping machines, sometimes coupled with lasers, have been used in design shops and architectural offices for years, mostly to create rough 3-D models from computer-generated CAD/CAM designs. These prototypes were made from various kinds of resins hardened by computer-targeted lasers and were typically not operational models. They did however serve an important purpose to get clients to visualize and experience the final product without complex and expensive tooling operations.
Now, using ink-jet technology commonly found in the cheapest of color printers, these prototyping technologies have become so sophisticated that they can build working prototypes of mechanical devices and entire microprocessors.
2003: A flood of new printing applications
New scientist hails a new ‘gadget printer’ developed by the University of California at Berkeley as ‘The New Industrial Revolution’. This new ink-jet printer prints layer upon layer of conducting and semi-conducting polymers so that an electronic device can be built up layer by layer – the end of ‘traditional manufacturing’ for many gadgets. The breakthrough here was ink-jet cartridges that can handle the various types of polymers. The promise for the future is the ability to print almost any type of gadget – a light bulb or a fully populated circuit board or a complete mobile phone. Manufacturing in one simple process -literally in a box.
Several companies experiment with prototypes of ‘printable batteries’ for small electronic devices such as cellphones.
Advanced Ceramics Research (ACR) prints layer upon layer of artificial bone on patients where these ‘artificial bone’ deposits are slowly replaced by your own.
Vladimir Nironov at the Medical University of South Carolina uses ink-jet technology to print tubes of living tissue – “a first step towards printing entire organs”.
2004: Electronics and flexible materials merge to create new products
Flexonics – the merging of electronics and flexible materials – promises to change our perception of ‘hard’ware completely.
See SciAm for display microprocessor prints onto a clear flexible sheet for the first time, promising reusable newspapers and company brochures.
Electro-active polymers are developed that will allow the printing of flexible parts that could be used to support muscle movement lost in humans. First trials prove to be surprisingly successful.
2006: The first commercial flexible A4 display
A consortium of British and Japanese firms announce the first commercial flexible A4 display
2008: Medical spare parts industry booms
The medical industry in the USA is flooded by new applications for ink-jet printers to create customized teeth, bone implants and temporary skin. Dental work is changed overnight. Previously top dentists were using expensive machines to shape replacement teeth from blocks of ceramic. Now customised teeth can be produced directly by inexpensive ink-jet printers, based on a digital image of the patient’s mouth.
Arthritic joints are another target for early applications.
2010: Most advertising hoardings are now smart displays
Organic polymers have advanced to such a degree that ‘smart ads’ can be printed cheaply in your neighborhood print shop, on a large scale only possible industrially before.
Consumer groups and activists call for new legislation to protect public areas from excessive visual pollution now that anyone can create powerful moving adverts.
2011: Merger mania hits paper industry, manufacturers feel the heat
Several of the leading paper producers have invested heavily in alternate electronic paper technologies over the past five years. Their new product lines are starting to cannibalize their ‘old’ products and many have shed the old product divisions.
Over the past two years there has been massive worldwide consolidation in the paper industry with more than 80% of world production now concentrated in just 3 mega-producers.
Paper agents have long since moved to keep up with customer demands for increased choice – more electronic alternatives – and they are now starting to supply 3-D printers for office and home use.
Some manufacturers of consumer electronics and appliances have started to experience massive competition from ‘printed’ versions of their products. By 2015 it is estimated that all mobile phones and game machines will be printed at home.
2012: First 3-D printers for the home consumer
Programmable network-attached printers become the top sellers in the 2012 holiday season.
Applications include the ability to print common household drugs onto edible rice paper, spare parts for common household objects and the first food items.
Sony’s web site announces that GameBoy XX, the twentieth re-incarnation of their popular gaming machine, can now be downloaded from their web site and printed at home.