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New manufacturing technologies will transform the way we produce things, but can we expect everything to come off a 3D printer?
Mirko Meboldt, professor of product development and engineering design at ETH Zurich and Torbjörn Netland, assistant professor of production and operations management, discuss the potential—and reality—of the situation:
Do you have anything 3D printed at home?
Meboldt: I made an attachment for my milling tool. It’s cheaper than buying it and I can tailor it to my own needs.
Netland: I have some tracks for a toy train set. It’s something of a metaphor for where 3D printing stands at the moment—which is in the hobby room. Something to play around with.
Play around? Enthusiasts are calling additive manufacturing the disruptive technology that’s going to change everything.
Meboldt: It’s a rather absurd situation. I don’t think we’ve ever had a situation where a production technology enters children’s playrooms and company boardrooms at one and the same time. Never before has a technology been so over- and underestimated.
Why is that?
Netland: Often people get the wrong idea in their head. Yes, you can buy a 3D printer right now for just a few hundred Swiss francs. But it’s only going to print toys. It’s not suitable for industrial applications.
Meboldt: You have to remember that 3D printing isn’t a singular term, but instead encompasses the entire range of additive—that is to say, layer-based production techniques. These form a whole category of their own, bringing together more than two dozen different process technologies, and a whole plethora of different properties and materials.
So how do we do it all?
Meboldt: These days, there are 3D printers for ceramics, metal, plastic, wax, plaster, sand, and concrete—and for every scale. I can just as well print shapes that you can thread through the eye of needle as I can print an entire building. In other words, it’s a technology with a great many fields of application, even in medicine, where it can be used to manufacture artificial limbs or tissue replacements. It’s a huge range of techniques we’re talking about, and that is really grabbing people’s attention.
So it is a disruptive technology after all?