SPECIAL: 3D printing: To obscurity or beyond?

 Over the past few years, the topic of 3D printing has gone from sounding like a storyline from Star Trek to an industry with real-life applications, many game-changing promises and seemingly vast potential. But to what extent will 3D printing either embed itself deeper into our consciousness or drift back into a world of fantasy? Or possibly end up somewhere in the middle.

Gary Lovell, Managing Director at Labelservice, says “3D printing is certainly an exciting prospect, especially for people in the printing industry like ourselves. But now I think we will start to see whether or not it will catch on. You just don’t know where things will be taken, whether they will be used or scrapped.

“However, the potential remains and these are exciting times for companies like Labelservice to think of the possibilities that implementing 3D printing brings to the table. “

It seems that each week brings a new story about the wonders of 3D printing. One day we can read about the printing of food in the form of rudimentary sugar shapes; the next day a little boy has had a prosthetic limb printed for him to replace a lost hand. There is little doubt that the technology is extremely impressive. However, brilliant technology has come and gone in the past due to being little more than a fleeting fashion or an unnecessary luxury. One might look at the case of 3D cinema: invented in the 1950s and then virtually disappeared for fifty years, before making a recent comeback as a money-making trend in modern movies. However, as soon as it has reappeared, it is falling out of out of favour again as it is used more often as a gimmick than as a way of genuinely improving the quality of a viewer’s experience of a movie.

How can we relate this to the future relevance of 3D printing? Let’s look at the story of the child and his 3D-printed prosthetic limb. One of the crucial aspects of this example is that a hand produced through 3d printing costs under $100, whereas a typical prosthetic hand can easily come in over the $50,000 mark. Although the printed arm certainly has room for improvement in functionality, there are clearly significant implications of such a dramatic difference in cost, particularly for children, who will likely require a number of size upgrades during their growth period. This is one area in which 3D printing beats 3D cinema – nobody has ever praised the latter for its money-saving capabilities. Furthermore, as important a contribution as cinema makes to culture, it would be difficult to compare the impact of 3D on a movie to that of an affordable prosthetic to a child who has lost a limb.

Using such examples, we can see that 3D printing has certainly not reached its full potential, yet it has already taken significant strides in impactful areas over a short period time. Considering this, we should continue to give it a fair chance to improve, attain its long-term goals and possibly go where no man has gone before.