Project Proposal

Group Research Proposal: Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing)

One of the earliest technologies considered to have moved us into the modern era was the printing press. Printing evolved over centuries: first enabling mass communication to eventually becoming so ubiquitous that we now are provided with a printer free with the purchase of a laptop. This innovation allowed information to flow more freely – decentralizing the power of the church to multiple entities. With the Internet, information quickly transfers information – replacing the need for centralized printing plants. In our project, we aim to briefly explore the history of printing, it’s decentralizing impact and focus on the latest innovation in the field: 3D printing.

Last month, the Economist featured a story that seemed more like science fiction than science reporting. It featured a world in which computers following complex blue prints could create tangible three-dimensional objects by using ‘additive’ printing – molding together bits of plastic to create models of complex items. Though this technology has been developing and in use for over a decade, its innovation potential is tremendous. Engineers and designers predict that within 20-years human body parts will be able to be ‘printed’ and attached to amputees – and fully functional. If these trend projections are correct, then within our career’s span, human body parts and intellectual property could be a whole new ball game – and a trillion dollar industry. The science behind this new field is rich, complex, and evolving, and the sociological implications that this technology will have on the way we manufacture and purchase consumer goods will be highly consequential.

For the purpose of this project, we will specifically focus on the materials used in printing the layers that make up the 3D objects. The development of 3D (or additive) printing allows for us to move beyond printing with ink into a whole new realm of possibilities including: materials ranging from resins, to plastics, to even human tissue. Because this emerging technology pushes conventional ideas of printing, we will discuss the historical foundations upon which this technology is built as well as the possibilities for its future use.
Already the technology provides a billion dollar market as it’s used by rapid prototyping, speciality manufacturing and hobbyists. Even if the technology does not transpire in the same fashion as a computer-on-every-desk model, it will transform manufacturing by reducing waste – by adding material as needed – current manufacturing creates up to 90 percent waste (2).

To provide context to our analysis, we will briefly discuss how the mechanics of printing have evolved from the days of the printing press, moveable type and oil-based inks to the inkjet printer-era. The history of printing is dynamic and influential. Understanding these materials and mechanics will help us show how we have transitioned from replicating a single entity with the printing press, to mass producing any written document with the inkjet printer, to the capability of customizable printing with 3D technology.

The possibilities of 3D printing are seemingly limitless, crossing multiple disciplines, ranging from the arts to the sciences, and various industries, including the automotive industry and bio-engineering. As 3D printing has the potential to lower risks, reduce production constraints, and minimize costs associated with manufacturing as well as drive the trend towards mass customization, all indications suggest it will have a significant impact on future technology across the board. In this light, we will study potential implications including, how 3D printing challenges the idea of economies of scale, what it could mean for those in traditional manufacturing jobs, issues it raises surrounding intellectual property rights, and how it could alter the whole concept of competitive advantage – all for a ‘jobless economy.’

As this technology is inherently multidimensional, the span of required deliverables will allow for the capture of the technology in its grandness. There is a considerable amount of research upon which to draw to further our understanding of additive printing. To complement our research, we will seek to conduct an interview with someone within the field of 3D printing to learn more about the materials they work with, what they use 3D printing for, how they believe this field will evolve over time and what they feel the impact of the technology might be. Because this field is still nascent, we will have to be creative in how we approach components such as the video and survey. In order to best present this technology in context, we may share a visual representation of the development of printing technology over time that will impress upon the class how far printing has come.

Ultimately, we will work to document, synthesize and relay the evolution of printing and the future implications of additive printing as well as portray the materials used and the art forms produced through imagery.

DC-Area Interviewees:

John Lee, ABC Printing

Michael Weinberg, Public Knowledge

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