Imagine you’re steaming across the Pacific Ocean on a container ship on a great circle course to the San Francisco sea buoy. The sea is confused and you’ve been running the ship’s slow speed diesel engine hard to meet your ETA. The vibration reverberating through the hull gently trembling you to sleep when, without warning, the sound stops.
Minutes later, the Chief Engineer calls to inform you that the PLS Dosage Pump supply valve has failed and your ship is now dead in the water, a seriously overpriced pontoon, until you can get the part to fix it.
As Captain, you don’t know what a PLS pump is but, from the grumpy tone of the chief’s voice, you are sure he doesn’t have a spare or any way of making the complicated part in the ship’s machine shop. Your shipment will be delayed, money and resources will be lost and the office will be calling soon on the satellite phone asking for answers.
But what if you could make that replacement part yourself?
Welcome to 3-D printing. A vessel’s computers may one day have a database of 3-D CAD (Computer Aided Design) images of each and every part on the ship, from nuts to bolts, all the way up to complex engine parts. If any of these should fail, the printer could have a suitable, made-to-spec replacement in a matter of minutes to hours.
“3-D printing has the potential to change everything” says a former ship engineer. First used in the late 1980′s, this technology has been called Rapid Manufacturing, a term coined by inventor S. Scott Crump who later went on to start Stratasys.
It has also been called additive manufacturing or stereolithography, more complicated terms for similar technology created at about the same time by 3-D Systems founder Charles “Chuck” Hull.
While both companies have traded publicly for a decade or more, the technology has gained traction in recent years and has launched both companies into an organic growth spurt, prompting acquisitions and strong numbers, with little to no debt. While these two companies are the leaders in market cap, the entire publicly traded market cap for 3-D printing companies is comparatively small, roughly $2 billion. And many companies that work in this space are still privately held.
Today, 3-D Printers have evolved to make a variety of objects using a laser or extruder (the material output part of the printer, best described as a futuristic hot glue gun) that moves along an X, Y and Z axis to build an object in three dimensions, layer by layer, sometimes only microns thick at a time, depending on the desired resolution of the object.
This method eliminates a lot of wasted materials, as any leftover powdered substrate can be immediately used on another project, alleviating the need for injection molding, setup costs, cutting, sanding, drilling and having scraps of material left over, as is common with traditional manufacturing methods. The most impressive part: economies of scale cease to be an issue as costs for single parts become standardized in relation to the costs of the material being used.
But the most stimulating possibility of this technology is unlimited customization. If you don’t like a feature of the part or object you
are creating, simply tweak the CAD drawing to include your improvement and print another one. Don’t know how to use CAD? Try Google Sketchup for easy design in three dimensions, or download the drawings straight from the manufacturer.
Parts for machines, Parts for people?
This technology is not simply for modeling and prototyping, either. TV personality Jay Leno uses a 3-D printer to make custom and hard-to-find parts from scratch for his collection of classic cars. Entrepreneurs have been using these printers in a myriad of ways, and the trend is speeding up.
Organovo, a San Diego-based firm headed by CEO Keith Murphy, has high hopes for the future of the technology as a medical tool with surprising speed. “We currently produce organic tissues grown from cell samples, which can be used as a human analog for pharmaceutical drug discovery and development. The printing process can take as little as 12-24 hours. This can allow for more relevant results and less animal involvement than traditional research methods.” said Murphy in a recent interview. Organovo was recently listed on the OTC market under the ticker.
According to Murphy, “We started out in late 2008 and received $3 million in angel investment. Since mid-2011, we have doubled in size, and recently secured another $8 million in private funds, in conjunction with the public listing”.
One day companies like Organovo may be able to simply harvest a grown adults’ stem cells from a blood draw, use a specialized 3-D printer to build an organic, polymeric scaffolding in the shape of the organ or tissue that needs to be replicated, and literally grow a kidney, heart, lungs, within a matter of days or weeks. In theory, pluripotent stem cells can be harnessed safely from the intended transplant recipients, without damage to any unborn fetuses.
They offer patients no chance of organ rejection due to their self-origin, and bypass the need for endless waiting lists where patients may never find themselves at the top before it’s too late. Imagine a world where replaceable organs were available to everyone who needed one. It may be coming faster than you think.
What about our wounded service men and women, returning from conflicts
abroad, who have tragically lost limbs in service to our country? The cost of a high quality artificial limb replacement, when parted out, has been quoted in the 6 figure range. They are mostly ill fitting, take a while to manufacture and have to attempt to be customized using standardized parts; overall a poor replacement for a lost limb. And could more simple medical prints, like a tooth cap, be used in the field and aboard ships?
Bespoke Innovations, headed in San Francisco by Scott Summit, has been creating some of the most elaborate and functional prototypes for artificial limbs using 3-D printers. These limbs will come out of a printer completely functioning and assembled, sometimes with many intricate moving parts and using various materials, all with a cost parity of about $5,000-$10,000.
Their ease of use, customizability and functionality, coupled with a relatively low price point, are most definitely a step up from their predecessors. According to Summit, “3-D Printing was initially a solution looking for a problem. With any world changing technology, it only matters once it actually does change the world”.
When a technology comes along and can do something better, faster and cheaper… all of a sudden you find yourself wondering how we ever got along without it. The military is rumored to use 3-D printers for resupplying parts for fighter jets aboard carriers and in the combat theatre, and since it costs so much to send anything that weighs a lot into space, NASA and the Singularity University are reportedly planning to use 3-D printers for future space missions. “It used to be that resupply was the Achilles Heel,” says Summit. “But now you can make the parts remotely as needed, eliminating the need for inventory. On the moon, for example, you could use a naturally occurring substrate such as Silica, which is commonly found on the surface there. All you need is a binding agent.”
My D’oh Face
My personal interest was piqued years ago when I met with Jesse Waites, a fellow entrepreneur living in Boston, and he started rattling off the merits of 3-D printing. I was dumbstruck, his enthusiasm sent me down a rabbit hole of investigation. And I’m not alone.
Richard Branson, rebel billionaire and head of the Virgin Empire, couldn’t help but have his interest piqued when we spoke about 3-D printing at a fundraiser in Miami Beach, yet the investing public remains generally clueless to its potential. Some people seem to “get it” right away, but on a frequent basis I’m confronted the same question uttered with a furrowed brow and questioning glance; “Why would anyone use this?”
An even more disturbing question I frequently hear is “What’s the short term potential?” At an investor meeting held at the New York Stock Exchange last May, a room full of analysts asked very short term, profit-driven questions, refusing to see the future gold mine in front of their eyes. “Who would buy this?”, they ask. “Why would anyone want to create objects themselves?”
Are these the same type of people who welcomed Bill Gates’ visionary shift from hardware to software with questions like “Who is going to buy a disk of one’s and zero’s?”
The better question today, especially with a fully functional plug and play 3-D printer called the cube (only $1299) being launched by 3-D Systems in the near term, is “Who isn’t going to buy this?” One development that may shed some light on that question is already clear.
The world’s leading source of illegal downloads, the infamous website Pirate Bay, has already jumped on the bandwagon with downloadable physical object models, called Physibles, and hopes to keep 3-D files available to the masses. But some are hoping for a legally sanctioned alternative that avoids copyright issues.
One expert in 3-D printing said “An iTunes-like model could be profitable for digital distributors, because once you can download a coffee maker, or print out a new set of kitchen utensils on your personal 3-D printer, who will visit a retail store again? Other ripples in manufacturing may follow, leading to the question “Could the cheap trade deficit with China be solved with 3-D printing, by bringing more manufacturing back to the U.S.?” This remains to be seen, but experts agree this idea is within the realm of possibility.
The Possible Negatives
Some are hoping that 3-D printers will eliminate the need for warehouses and spare parts store rooms, but 3-D Printing is not a silver bullet. As one expert told us “You still need the ingredients. What happens when the part is load bearing and subject to high pressure and high temperature environments? What if the part is made of exotic material you don’t have in stock? A plastic or metal part might work on a temporary basis, or not.”
What about the ability to replace large parts or ones built of a mix of materials? What if a complicated part needs to be manufactured by two different types of 3-D printers? Perhaps a printer with multiple heads, designed to print with multiple materials simultaneously, is the answer. These are questions which the industry still needs to figure out, but also where the plot thickens.
Self Replicating Machines
While many exotic materials have yet to be tested, current 3-D printers can make parts from the most widely used of today’s materials. Plastic and PVC all the way up to Aluminum and Titanium parts can be printed, and printers can even print themselves. That’s correct. A printer is capable of printing a functioning copy of itself, and in the future this capability could be harnessed for a myriad of purposes.
Want to build a base on Mars, but need to reduce the cargo from bulky parts to raw bulk material? Send a signal to a single printer hundreds of thousands of miles away with instruction to print 10 or 100 or more printers of various types, to build out bases, equipment, rovers, shuttles, whatever.
Perhaps raw materials are, as in to the moon scenario, already available there, alleviating the need to send substrate with the machines. Cities under the ocean? Why not? In the future underwater structures could be built so their foundations are contoured to the precise soundings of Google Oceans maps.
But maybe your desire for mass customization does not involve extraterrestrial or underwater excursions. What if you want to simply build a house? As Summit points out, other firms are using G.I.S. (Geographic Information System) data in conjunction with 3-D printers to make houses that are structurally perfect for their location.
This experimental technology, called “Contour Crafting”, may soon be able to be used to rebuild not just homes but entire ports to with withstand future earthquakes that devastate places like Haiti. And the cost would be a fraction of what a traditional construction company might charge.
But what about marine transportation?
It’s clear that, if this technology is adopted on a large scale, the balance of cargo will shift from container vessels back to bulk cargoes, but that might not be the limit.
John Konrad, a former ship captain and expert in marine transportation says “Ships could conceivably become manufacturing plants. Install a bank of 3-D printers aboard ship and the vessel could pick up raw materials overseas and begin manufacturing products during the voyage to the United States.” With engineers and scientists currently doing amazing things around the world with this technology, an endless article could be written about the possibilities, but I think one thing is clear: 3-D printing, while still just hitting its stride, will impact the future in unimaginable ways.
“We are going to live in a world where anyone can create and customize, and iterate with blinding speed.” says one financial expert. I believe that he’s right, and I can’t think of another technology that has so many implications for new industry. The possibilities are endless, and opportunities are coming fast and furious. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose right now.”, says Summit.
Just like the Industrial Revolution, the assembly line, the advent of the internet and the Social Media phenomenon, 3-D Printing will be a game changer.
— Brad Hart
This article originally appeared here on Forbes.com.