Advances in technology have propelled the human race to an unprecedented plateau of innovation and capability. Throughout our history, revolutionary technological advances have presented an opportunity to push the boundaries of societal progress, and now with additive manufacturing, once again we find ourselves on the cusp of behaviour altering possibilities. Additive manufacturing poses a unique proposition; the freedom of design to create more, to inspire innovation, and to better society (Diegal, Singamneni, Reay, & Withell, 2010). Through embracing additive manufacturing’s full potential and integrating it into traditional manufacturing and product development processes, we will begin to see new applications scaling almost every industry (Harris, 2011).
Additive manufacturing, the all-encompassing term, is actually divided into two major categories; rapid prototyping, and rapid production (Bak, 2003). Other terms often heard include 3D printing, digital manufacturing, and rapid manufacturing, yet are all descriptive of the same additive process (Bak, 2003). The process itself involves the construction of an object layer-by-layer using a variety of materials and a bonding agent (Bird, 2012). This differs greatly from traditional methods of subtractive manufacturing: the removal of material to produce a desired design. The development of the technology dates back to 1968, where the first patent was filed for an additive prototype by Win Kelly Swainson (Teska, 2012).
Over the years additive manufacturing has evolved to include different processes and materials. Fused deposition modeling, polyjet, selective laser sintering, and stereolithography are all derivative of the original additive concept (Dimitrov, Schreve, & de Beer, 2006). They evoke an ability to create faster, stronger, or more versatile models, with each process posing its own strengths and weaknesses. In more recent times (The mid-2000s), the cost of additive manufacturing has decreased dramatically, creating a progressive demand in the consumer market (O'Heir, 2012). This adoption has led to the mainstream avocation of the technology, which has positively affected the economy, job creation, and innovation.
Throughout the course of history, medical innovations, product development, and innovation have all been instrumental in creating our standard of living. Lost in all the excitement over the newest smart phone or medical treatment is the means by which it was developed. Additive manufacturing poses a unique proposition for ingenuity without the constraints of traditional development (Diegal, et al., 2010). It has made inroads into almost every industry, prompting users to test the limitations of what is possible in any given timeframe. With this superior advantage comes a society on the infinite course of consumerism (O'Heir, 2012). This society that is created is one with increased expectations, product standards, and the potential to disregard any legal boundaries in order to advocate creativity and the sharing of information.
Additive manufacturing has created a competitive advantage for many companies in their pursuit of operational efficiency (Harris, 2011). In regards to product development, additive manufacturing has given companies a way to limit outsourcing to third parties by developing concepts in house (Denning, 2012), as well as creating an advantage over competitors by shortening the product development cycle (Kochan, 2000). This once closely kept secret has trickled its way into other industries, with forward-thinkers piloting new applications of the technology. In education, the integration of 3D printing into engineering and manufacturing curriculums has greatly enhanced student’s levels of learning (Bull, et al., 2010). Students now have the ability to be more responsive and creative in the learning challenges presented to them by visualizing concepts as opposed to reading them (Kroll & Artzi, 2011). Educators can harness the technology to encourage scientific thinking, and the development of real world skills. In the medical industry, the conjunction and compatibility of medical imaging software with 3D printing technology (Ebert, Thali, & Ross, 2011), has produced new insights into the treatment of physical disabilities and ailments. Human prosthetics was one of the first fields to see progress with rapid prototyping in the early 1990s, along with surgical planning and custom implants (Ashley, 1993). The elimination of timely custom creations means a more responsive healthcare system able to better serve their patients, greatly improving medical care. Additive manufacturing has also progressed to produce end-use hearing aids and medical implants much more economically then traditional processes, creating a wider availability for affordable healthcare solutions. With so many positive impacts on society through education, medicine, and business, additive manufacturing is a relentless force when combined with creative thinking.