By Giovanna Fabiano
Is the 3D printer the unofficial symbol of the new Industrial Revolution? That’s what scientists and tech experts have been proselytizing to anyone who will listen.
In some sectors, such as healthcare, the gadget does indeed have the potential to revolutionize medicine.
Surgical instruments, hearing aids, prosthetics, and umbilical cord clamps are being crafted by 3D printers.
Tech companies are able to fine-tune their latest electronic devices in the design phase by making hundreds of 3D prototypes. And industrial-sized 3D printers are transforming aviation, with companies like GE using them to create jet engine parts.
But is there any palpable utility for the rest of us? Aside from its exciting ability to spit out burritos, deep fried scallops shaped like space shuttles, and bobbleheads in our likeness?
Leon Wong, director of market strategy at PARC, focusing on technological innovation, said additive manufacturing, which extends to both 3D printing and printed electronics will indeed change the world — it’s just “going to take some time.”
“Much of the applications are prototyping at this point, but the enormous potential for 3D printing is everywhere —a lot of it just depends on what your business is.”
Wong said the most important things about additive manufacturing’s potential in everyday life is that it enables true customization while cutting down the number of steps required to produce and deliver products. For offices, that could mean the ability to personalize workspaces by printing electronics (e.g. solar cells, memory, transistors, sensors for touch, temperature light, pressure, and more) into any 3D printed structure, such as windows, walls, ceilings, and furniture.
“It speeds up the innovation process,” Wong said.
Here are three ways 3D printing and printed electronics could transform our work lives:
1. By improving efficiency. Let’s say you work for a large company where employees are scattered around the world. When introducing a new product, you typically need at least 24 hours to ship a prototype before unveiling it at a meeting. Since sending it to all employees in a particular department may not be feasible, managers in all likelihood will have to capture the product on video during a webcast, so everyone can get a good look at all angles.
What if you no longer have to worry about mailing the products or clogging employees’ inboxes with a presentation that includes an excess number of sales images?
“Companies would be able to take the latest prototype, email the specs over and each employee could print it out themselves and see and touch and feel every detail,” Wong said. “The file arrives in an instant and there’s no longer that worry about where the item is and did it get there yet.”
2. By reducing waste. 3D printing was found in a recent study to be greener than conventional printing, because it releases less carbon dioxide than producing things in a factory and shipping those products to a warehouse.
Researchers from Michigan Technological University found that making items on a basic 3D printer required 41 to 64 percent less energy than producing them in a factory and shipping them to the U.S. Some of the savings come from using fewer raw materials.
3. By providing endless opportunities for customization. Most office chairs can be adjusted for height and lumbar pressure, but what if you could get that perfect ergonomic fit with a 3D printed chair? With the technology being developed today, it’s not far off for your personalized chair to be retrofitted with printed sensors that measure your vital signs, and communicate to a control system to adjust your temperature and lighting preferences automatically. This would also work for those notoriously uncomfortable meeting rooms.
“The potential for customization has huge efficiency gains, eliminates time management issues, and even allows for improved interaction with customers,” Wong said.
“Instead of a few people special enough to see a product in its early stages, why not let the average person print out the prototype on their own printer and interact with the business to provide feedback?”
This article originally appeared on Real Business, a digital magazine sponsored by Xerox, and can be viewed here.
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