The third industrial revolution is built on direct digital manufacturing, and driven by newer technologies such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, advanced robotics and smart devices. It’s democratizing the power to connect the digital and physical at the level of individual creators and consumers, resulting in unprecedented digital lean production.
It’s the kind of innovation that will transform industries, from fashion to aerospace to medicine, in ways we can barely imagine today. As the cost of 3-D printing plummets and materials science creates more printable substances, manufacturers will find it increasingly tempting to ditch traditional injection-molding presses that spit out thousands of widgets an hour for the much more flexible production of individual products. The first evidence of this is already visible: Local Motors printed a good-looking roadster, including wheels and chassis but not yet drivetrain, in 48 hours.
3D printers, ranging from consumer models to professional production machines priced at half a million dollars and beyond, produce everything from model architectural details to casting molds for jewelers, to end-use parts that improve efficiency and durability for jet fighters and automobiles. They also expedite product development cycles and make it possible to print one-off spare parts, removing the need for Original Equipment Manufacturers to hold expensive, space-consuming inventory of old or obsolete parts.
The technology is sometimes called additive fabrication, but the umbrella term 3D printing is more accurate, as it refers to a large family of processes that build things by adding material (or joining or solidifying it) rather than cutting, grinding or carving away material to form shapes as in traditional machining. However, the name lingers in a world that is still largely ignorant of this revolutionary technology. This is why the industry needs better education and outreach, and why spaces such as libraries and public makerspaces are essential in this mission.