At a glance
- 3D printing technology has advanced rapidly over the past decade
- We explore the latest developments, from printing food to printing houses
- 3D printing is set to change the way consumers and businesses operate in the future, and brokers should be aware that many customers may already be using it
From building houses to manufacturing drugs and even producing food, 3D printing is already being used for a variety of seemingly futuristic applications.
While the technology has existed since the 1980s, there have been huge advances in the field in the past decade, and 3D printers can now be found everywhere from high-tech businesses to schools.
We look at some of the latest developments in 3D printing, and how the technology could change the way businesses and consumers operate in the future.
Print and eat
Although still some way off synthesising everyday meals for the mass market, existing technologies are already creating real, edible food.
More than 1,000 nursing homes in Germany, for example, are using 3D printers to create more appetising meals for patients who have trouble chewing and swallowing. The food is cooked and pureed, mixed with a secret texturiser and ‘printed’ into familiar food shapes.
3D printing has also found a place in the confectionary and baking industries. Machines such as the ChefJet Pro can produce complex and ornate designs from a variety of edible materials. These can then be used to top cakes, or stand alone as elaborate pieces of confectionary.
A US start-up, Modern Meadow, is even currently developing artificial raw meat using a 3D bioprinter, expecting to one day compete with traditional farmed products.
From prosthetics to pills
3D printing is nothing new to medicine, and has already helped save numerous lives and improve many more.
Earlier this year, for example, 3D printed splints helped save three babies from a life-threatening breathing condition. Not only were the splints customised to each patient’s airways, but they were also designed to change shape as the children grow.
Prosthetics is one field where 3D printing has huge potential. Current prosthetics are typically mass-produced, expensive to make and difficult to customise for each patient. The winner of this year’s James Dyson Award addressed these very issues, designing a 3D printed prosthetic hand which was more lightweight, easier to customise and can be produced at a fraction of the cost of current mass-produced models.
A recent breakthrough at the University of Florida is also paving the way for 3D printed organs. While scientists have already synthesised kidneys, ears and veins using 3D bioprinters, latest developments using gel scaffold may allow us to print complex, working organs in the future.
Perhaps the most surprising development is the approval of the first 3D printed pill for consumer use. The technology allows layers of different medications to be packaged in precise dosages, pointing to a future of 3D printed personalised medicines, which could even be manufactured in a patient’s home.
While small objects, or components for larger structures, are the staple of 3D printing, there have also been huge advances in the creation of larger objects.
In 2014, a Chinese construction company unveiled its concrete 3D printer, which can build 10 complete houses in one day, each costing less than £3,000. Since then, this technology has gone on to develop larger buildings, using special materials than can withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake.
What can we already make using 3D printing?
- Machinery components
- Human tissue and prosthetics
- Clothing, shoes and makeup
- Musical instruments
- Space telescopes
- And much more
With 3D printing already able to utilise a variety of materials, including metals, ceramics and concrete, the technology has huge potential for the construction sector.
Dutch start-up MX3D is currently awaiting approval to build a 3D printed steel bridge in the centre of Amsterdam, so it may not be long before 3D printers are a common tool on construction sites.
Access to 3D printing
The possibilities of 3D printing are practically endless, and it is widely recognised as a technology that will change the world, one sector at a time. However, 3D printing’s most influential development has arguably not been a particular application, but its sheer proliferation over the past decade.
Once a technology priced beyond most people’s reach, you can now purchase a fully functioning 3D printer from as little as £400 (since we first discussed the subject in 2013, the cost has already more than halved). This has radically increased its accessibility, meaning small businesses, the general public and even schools are now able to explore its potential.
This poses huge questions for future business and consumer activity, and back in 2012 there were already predictions that 3D printing could instigate a third industrial revolution, challenging our established principles of design, manufacture and consumption. The Intellectual Property Office has since produced a report into the implications of intellectual property and mass-uptake of 3D printing.
Many brokers may already have customers who are using 3D printing in their own business, or considering its potential benefits.
Explore Insider’s previous in-depth articles: We consider some of the new risk exposures for businesses in insurance pitfalls of 3D printing, and take a look at product liability laws in why 3D printing is blurring the boundaries with product liability, to better understand how this emerging technology might affect customers’ risk profiles.