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By Stephanie Brooks

You’ve read the hype online, heard about it around the water cooler, watched it on television and maybe, even, implemented it on your own shop floor

Whether you’re more familiar with the term digital desktop fabrication, prefer to call it additive manufacturing or know the process as rapid prototyping, one thing is clear: 3D printing is the innovation currently taking the world by storm.

But this is one wave of manufacturing that isn’t receding anytime soon. It’s the newest industrial revolution. And it’s here.

Having been on our radar since the 1980s, 3D printing has changed the nature of manufacturing processes by bringing the means of production into the hands of people — democratizing manufacturing. From shoes and prosthetic limbs to food and cars, this technology is no longer a novel concept — it’s mainstream. And as it becomes more and more accessible to schools, companies and individuals, and as society craves more customized experiences, 3D printing will prove to be an innovation with no boundaries.

Gaining ground

Over the past three years, the industry has seen a 27 per cent growth, according to Wohlers Associates, with global ­revenues from all additive manufacturing products and services ­totaling $2.2 billion just last year. By 2017, the firm projects the sale of 3D-printing products and services will reach $6 billion worldwide.

With almost 30 per cent of current global additive manufacturing revenue dedicated to the production of end-use parts, as opposed to prototypes or models, 3D manufacturing is gaining ground outside of just business. Digital technologies such as 3D modeling software and 3D printers have dropped in both size and price in the past five years, making them increasingly accessible for people to fabricate objects traditionally reserved for the shop floor.

Whether printing on your own or using a user-generated online portal of free, ready-to-print models like Thingiverse, the process is generally the same — and relatively easy.

It typically involves creating a solid object from a 3D image generated by computer-assisted design (CAD) software. That image is then sliced into hundreds or thousands of horizontal layers of thin material placed on top of one another to form a completed object. This building of layers, starting from the bottom, gives it the term additive manufacturing, in which products are usually made up of materials like plastic, metal and ceramic.

While printers range in size and price — for uses from hobby to industrial — their average cost is coming down. North American retailers have begun selling the consumer 3D printer “Cube X” for about $1,200, while printers for more advanced applications can range up to a quarter of a million dollars.

In their journal article, Materializing Information: 3D printing and social change, authors Matt Ratto and Bob Ree say the increased accessibility of additive manufacturing has the potential to transform any space into a “micro factory.”

In today’s age of customization and individualized ­experiences — largely driven by the digital economy — 3D printing allows for, and encourages, everyone to become a manufacturer.

“Consumers increasingly […] expect that products be tailored to their specific needs, wants, contexts and tastes,” claim Ratto and Ree. “As personal rapid prototyping technologies such as 3D printing, scanning and modelling become more accessible, ‘lead user innovators’ will be even more empowered to alter, reverse engineer, and design their own products.”

These innovators are becoming younger and are bringing what, at one time, could only be made possible on the shop floor to the classroom — and beyond.

The 21st-century shop class

In his 2012 book, MAKERS: The New Industrial Revolution, author Chris Anderson writes: “Just as shop class disappeared with school budget cuts, better opportunities in the workplace for women and gender equality killed Home Economics. Kids grew up with computer and video games, not wrenches and band saws […] But now, thirty years after ‘Industrial Arts’ left the curriculum and large chunks of our manufacturing sectors have shifted overseas, there’s finally a reason to get your hands dirty again. As desktop fabrication tools go mainstream, it’s time to return ‘making things’ to the high school curriculum, not as the shop class of old, but in the form of teaching design […] This is how the next wave of manufacturing entrepreneurs will be born.”

It didn’t take long; this “next wave” has already come.

Grade 9 students at Ottawa’s Ashbury College started their own 3D printing business last year in science class from an idea they had for specialized iPhone cases. After developing a business plan, the students won funding from the school’s ACE (Ashbury College Entrepreneurs) competition, which allowed them to purchase a printer and set up their business. The company launched as Fabrika 3D in January 2013.

“We came up with the idea of customized smartphone cases from a problem a lot of students have — us, included,” says one of Fabrika’s founders, Johannes Fuss. “Every day at lunch, we put our lunch cards in the back of our phone cases, but the cards don’t swipe. So, we made a hole for the student photo and barcode in the case itself,” he says. “It turned out to work very well.”

Fabrika’s 3D-printed phone cases immediately became popular among the student body, which has responded positively to the initiative and continues to provide the current team of seven new ideas for improvement or expansion.

“Our peers all know about it and have something to add to the business,” says Fuss. “We’ll be walking down the hall and people will share ideas with us — this input is so important.”

Fabrika now offers an online 3D printing and design service, and has hopes of bringing the lessons learned from its endeavour to more Ottawa schools and the larger community.

“Our main goal moving forward is to become further ­integrated in communities, step more away from the business side and go into schools and workshops to inspire others,” notes Fuss.

This vision is one they share with the founder of non‑profit True Innovators, Luc Lalande, who works to make 3D printing and similar tools accessible, understood by, and available to youth. Through fundraising, school workshops and community Makerspaces, Lalande hopes to develop the 21st-century shop class and inspire the next generation of manufacturers.

“We haven’t reinvented shop class in schools since the 1970s,” he says. “It’s been traditionally automotive repair shop or woodworking. But I don’t see any reason why we can’t revisit it and see what can we do if we put these tools in the hands of kids.”

Lalande, who previously led Carleton University’s innovation office, spends a lot of time on education-focused community Makerspaces — areas for youth to experiment with 3D printing and related tools to develop digital skills while ­learning the cycle from concept to product. From jewelry to test pieces, cookie cutters or 3D-printed characters from games, ­students are able to make mistakes, learn important problem solving, creative improvisation, collaborative learning and teamwork skills.

“When you introduce kids to tools and give them access to them early on, they become more proficient and understand what it takes to produce or manufacture something,” he says. “A lot of manufacturing will go digital — it is well on its way to doing that — and when you get youth to understand what digital design and manufacturing is about, it will pay dividends down the road.”

3D printing is already available in some Canadian ­post-secondary schools, including Sheridan College, and
in a growing number of high schools, says Lalande. But its use is often reserved for specialized programs like engineering or design, or is used as a ­prototyping tool that a technician will print. His goal in bringing it to elementary and high schools is to make ­machines accessible to all students directly. 

“When students actually see it, it’s like a magnet. It has this appeal to them. Maybe it’s the ‘coolness’ factor of 3D printing that attracts kids — that they can actually physically make something that simply,” says Lalande.

Regardless of why they find it enticing, youth involvement and their fascination with 3D printing are uplifting signs for an industry currently undergoing an unparalleled skills shortage.

Revolutionizing industry

Printer services company Envirolaser Ltd. has seen the education sector as the biggest driver of its 3D printer hardware sales, but is also experiencing reasonable growth in manufacturing.

From design verification and form, fit and function testing to IP protection and rapid manufacturing capabilities, Envirolaser has realized a broad range of applications and benefits 3D printing offers its customers, says President Corey Ilacqua.

Ilacqua, whose facility CME and Minister Gary Goodyear recently toured, says 3D printing can also be applied to such things as jigs, tools and dies that facilitate an improvement in how things are done. “The technology also plays a role in calibration and, when combined with a high-quality scanner, can be a powerful tool,” he adds.

True Innovators’ Lalande says the technology can be particularly advantageous to manufacturers in fast-moving, competitive markets, where product innovation is critical.

“Depending on their market, a tool like 3D printing helps get prototypes out faster from design stage so manufacturers can iterate and improve versions of their product.”

Manufacturers like Ford, Mattel and General Electric have integrated additive manufacturing into their processes and ­have found production times slashed, prototype evaluation periods drastically reduced, and the number of technicians required decreased.

3D printing also allows customers to get products more quickly and is, arguably, more sustainable.

“I see additive manufacturing, to date, as a tool to promote innovation, one that allows tailor-made products and promotes positive environmental practices,” says Ilacqua.

Moving forward, this innovation will have the capability to ­alter the landscape of manufacturing processes, he says. “Over the course of the next decade, materials will be developed that will have equivalent characteristics to many of those used in today’s manufacturing. We will see many dramatic changes, including the disruption or dismantling of current supply chains; with additive manufacturing facilities located regionally or within business themselves.”

A boundless future

Others hold different lofty ambitions for the future of additive manufacturing, including ending world hunger by 3D printing food, printing in outer space, and the creation of new economic models. And while there is no doubt the technology has come a long way and created things many never before thought possible, there are hurdles still to overcome on the route to greater heights.

For one, proficient use of CAD software is still required to 3D print entirely on your own, restricting full printing capability to those with the technical skills.

Further, printers typically create an object out of one material instead of multiple, like most consumer products require.

Ratto and Ree state the size of objects that may be 3D printed by popular means is also limited, and although larger sizes are available through industrial shops, the cost becomes “prohibitively high.”

But as the next generation of manufacturers continues to prove, and as industry is demonstrating, the sky is really the limit for this 21st-century innovation.

“Each industry I deal with expands the applications well beyond anything I could think of,” concludes Ilacqua. “It’s a joy watching the gears turn.” 

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