The future of additive manufacturing
Take some raw materials. Put a lot of energy into forming them into a part of a certain size. Then remove some of to end up with the part you need.
That seems like the very definition of waste. Yet it is how most things get made today.
To be fair, it’s how we’ve done things for centuries, and millenniums. How do you make an spear tip? Take a stone and remove some of it until you’re left with a spear tip. Until you can form your own stones, there is just no other way.
Additive manufacturing is the process of making the final part you want, usually out of loose base material. Additive manufacturing has had a very slow and painful path to maturity. The question is, are we reaching the end of that path and additive manufacturing is what it’s going to be? Or are we 3-5 technological breakthroughs from realizing additive manufacturing’s true potential?
GE has made the kind of decision that becomes the forcing function for such breakthroughs. They have decided that they aren’t just going to use 3-D printing to make prototype parts, they are going to use it for volume finished parts. This decision led MIT’s Technology Review to name additive manufacturing one of its 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2013. One of the benefits for GE is lighter parts that leads to more fuel efficient planes. When people push the limits of the technology, especially in ways that require you to keep up and to spend money, some of the breakthroughs tend to be driven.
But the limits of such thinking is not just for powered metals to be ultrasonically welded together. So much of our lives is built around an inefficient combination of destruction and building. Want a table? First, grow a tree. Cut it down. Shape the wood. Bolt, screw, and glue it together. Viola! Now you have a table. Some leading edge research into cellular engineering has demonstrated that it is possible to program cells. They’re actually already programmed, but in this case, programmed to grow a tree. But if we could reprogram them, instead of growing a tree to make a table, couldn’t we just grow a table. Imagine all the waste removed if this were possible. And it is feasible, just not yet possible.
Let’s hope that as additive manufacturing advances, people come up with better uses that the whistles and dolls the gang from Big Bang Theory made (with bonus jokes mocking both additive manufacturing and manufacturing jobs moving to China):