3-D printing is one of those hot technologies that sometimes gets a bad rep among the not-so-tech inclined. You see, 3-D printing is often held up as a holy grail of sorts, a technology that could someday shake up manufacturing and numerous other industries. And then people see 3-D printers and realize most struggle to print anything useful.
Now, a few companies and researchers are on the verge of major breakthroughs. In Israel, for example, researchers used a 3D printer to create a functioning rabbit sized heart, complete with blood vessels.
Take Carbon, as another example. They are working on a 3-D printer that is capable of printing products that use multiple materials. Most 3-D printers are currently stuck using 1 type of material. Now think about the products you use during the course of your day, how many of them use just one material? Very few.
Sure, a coffee cup might be made out of one material. But printing up a coffee cup isn’t exactly high end and doesn’t add a lot of value. Now, think of a pair of shoes. They’re often made using rubber or another durable material for the sole, while the toe vamp, collar, and other parts are made out of synthetic cloth. Until now, printing up a shoe with a 3-D printer has been all but impossible because shoes use multiple materials.
Carbon, however, has developed a 3-D printer that can, in fact, print shoes. And I’m not talking about a proof of concept or anything like that. In fact, Carbon is already 3-D printer shoes for Adidas. Still, shoes are pretty low value and it can be hard to justify the need for 3D printing them.
Now, Hubs (formerly 3DHubs) is looking to shake the 3D printing industry up even further. Hubs offers a good example of how companies evolve. Initially, the company was more of a community, allowing individual 3D printers and small companies to complete projects in exchange for cash. The site was originally more akin to a freelance website for 3D printers.
Now, Hubs is focusing on higher-end customers and is using high-end plastics, metals, and other materials to produce advanced components and products. In the past, designing and producing components for prototypes, research, custom applications, and all the rest often took weeks. As a result, research and development might ground to a half.
Now, you can contract a company like Hubs to produce components, parts, or even whole products in a matter of days. This should speed up innovation and reduce product development times. It should also help companies validate ideas.
Take Kepler Communications, a startup looking to put satellites into space. Only a few commercial companies have put anything into space, let alone functioning communication satellites. Development and delivery costs can be absurdly expensive (although, nanosatellites are easier to put into space).
Outside of governments, space has been a playground for the ultra-wealthy, like Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos. Kepler Communications, on the other hand, was started by four graduate students and $5 million in funding from TechStars. $5 million might sound like a lot, but in terms of the ever-going space race, it’s a drop in the bucket.
Still, Kepler reached the final frontier, successfully putting a nanosatellite into space within just 12 months. How do you develop a satellite that quickly? You need to speed up both the R&D and product phases.
In order to reach space quickly, Kepler used a “trial and engineer” approach. They rapidly engineered prototypes, trying to find out what would and wouldn’t work. Kepler’s team was able to jot ideas down quickly, but how could they validate so many concepts?
The answer was Hubs. While it might take weeks to assemble a satellite built completely by hand, Hubs was able to quickly crank out high-quality components that could then be studied and tested.
Initially, 3D printing was portrayed as manufacturing and development at home. Anyone would be able to make pretty much anything with their home office 3D printer. Maybe that will come to pass but for now, the biggest breakthroughs may actually be in the industrial and high-end R&D spaces.
3D printing services by Carbon, Hubs, and others could shake up entire industries and lead to much quicker and more affordable research and development. This should spur innovation and ensure that more ideas are brought to life.