Innovation Insight: 3-D Printing

I have lived in an age where technology advances have been rather amazing and certainly life-changing for the vast majority of persons on the planet.  I have witnessed: the birth of manned space-flight culminating with sending men to the moon and returning safely back to Earth; trans/inter-continental flights becoming routine; the birth of the personal computer and computer networking; the internet becoming a ubiquitous utility which one cannot easily thrive without; the coming of age of the mobile-phone – culminating (thus far) with the smartphone and the 24/7 connectivity that came along with it (for better or for worse – is up to you).

However, with each emergence of a new technology, the “hype” that follows rarely lives-up to the reality.  In most cases, the technology follows the path of reasoning (or dialectic) of Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis – also known as the “Hegelian Dialectic” after the 19th Century German Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hence, having witnessed such repeated real-life examples of this dialectic time and time again, I am not a person who impresses easily – especially when it comes to technology.

Take, for instance, space-flight.  When Neil Armstrong aboard Apollo-11 first exited the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) “Eagle” and set foot on the moon on July 21st, 1969, the world went abuzz with plans of building colonies on the moon and even mars. The talked of travel becoming as routine as going to the grocery store for milk.  Of course, the reality did not live-up to the expectation.

Perhaps the best example in modern times of the Hegelian Dialect is the internet.  In the late 1990’s when the internet came into its own – everyone proclaimed a “new world economy” where “eyeballs to your website” became more important than cash.  The hype (Thesis) was that “if you are not on the internet, you are going out of business”.  The reality proved far different when the internet bubble popped – then the buzz (Antithesis) was “if you are on the internet, you can’t be a real business”.  This further evolved (Synthesis) to the more pragmatic view we hold today – that the internet has a value (more in some industries than others, such as travel), but it is not the sole requirement for success.

So it is with a grain of salt, coupled with a pragmatic approach, that I consider the hype associated with a relatively new technology called “3-D Printing”.  But it is “cool” enough and with some considerable possibilities, I devote an article to this emerging technology.

For the traditional fabrication of parts, one starts with material and removes some of the material until what remains is the part.  For instance, if you think of a drill, lathe, or stamping machine; the raw material at the beginning of the production process is of a volume greater than what will exist at the end of the process when the part is complete. This process of manufacturing is often referred to as “machining” or “subtractive manufacturing”.  See the following video for some examples:

Many other parts are fabricated using the traditional methods of molding or casting.  This process uses a raw material in liquid form which creates parts using a die (which is a negative of the part to be manufactured) into or onto which the liquid raw material is poured or otherwise formed into the final part.  Parts made of plastic are some common examples of molded parts.

A relatively new form of fabrication is “additive manufacturing” – which was widely known as “rapid prototyping” in the late 20th Century and is commonly referred to today as 3-D Printing.

In 3-D Printing, one starts with a 3-Dimensional design (digital model) of a the part to be created using a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) application.  Once the drawing is completed, it is “printed” to a machine that fabricates the part by adding layer upon layer of a material until the part is complete.  Much like a printer might print in black-and-white or color, there are many types of “printing” available in 3-D printing.  You may find some of the types of 3-D Printing available today in the table below.

ExtrusionFused deposition modeling (FDM)Thermoplastics (e.g. PLA, ABS), eutectic metals, edible materials
Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS)
Electron beam melting (EBM)
Selective heat sintering (SHS)
Selective laser sintering (SLS)
Powder bed and inkjet head 3d printing, Plaster-based 3D printing (PP)


Almost any metal alloy
Titanium alloys
Thermoplastic powder
Thermoplastics, metal powders, ceramic powders


LaminatedLaminated object manufacturing (LOM)Paper, metal foil, plastic film
Light polymerized
Stereolithography (SLA)
Digital Light Processing (DLP)


liquid resin


Table courtesy of Wikipedia

There are 3-D Printers that exist which will work directly in metals.  But these printers are very expensive and not (as of yet) economically viable for production runs of a product, but they are exceptional at making “one-offs” or short-runs.  As a result, the less expensive 3-D Printers are used to make molds, with the metal parts being fabricated using the molds.

Please enjoy the following videos for an overview of 3-D Printing and its applications:

As an introduction into 3-D Printing, I have included a few YouTube videos for your consideration.  This first is a good introduction into the technology by “The Creators Project”, a partnership with Intel and Vice.

And this video is from the 2012 3-D Printshow held in London this year.  It gives a lot of fascinating examples of what technologies exist today and some of the many uses.  As if to illustrate how very new the technology is, the “full website” is supposed to launch in February of 2013 (tick-tock).

Lastly, I found this video to be extremely fascinating.  It shows a “scanning device” that can input an object (including moving parts) and go directly to “printing” the fully-functioning end-products in mere moments.  Can those devices we used to see in “Star Trek” really be far behind?

Photo of boat made using 3-D PrintingNot everything “printed” has to be small.  Take, for instance, an entry by the University of Washington’s Engineering Department and the Washington Open Object Fabricators (WOOF) in this year’s Green Lake Milk Carton Derby held near Seattle (as reported in the November 3rd issue of The Economist).  The derby rules require that the craft’s flotation be from old milk containers – but almost anything goes thereafter.  The entrants created their craft by cleaning and shredding old plastic milk cartons and “printing” a boat – winning $100,000 in the 3D4D Challenge organized by the charity Techfortrade.

The raw material, High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), is plentiful and cheap.  Most of it is discarded after a single use.  If purchased new, it would cost approximately $800.  But to clean and grind-up the 250 or so old milk cartons cost just $3.20.

And 3-D Printing is not restricted to plastics.  Here is a fascinating 3-D Printer that “prints” in Stainless Steel and Bronze.  Certainly, similar principles could be applied to other metals (each with their own physical characteristics needed for “forging”).

But what are the limitations of 3-D Printing?

Certainly, the products being created today – for the most part – are not nearly as strong or as durable as products being produced by older “tried and true” methods.  But how did these legacy methods become “tried and true” in the first place?

The “Stone Age” started with the earliest stone tools approximately 2.5 million years ago.  As the ability and technology to work with stone improved, so did the sophistication, durability, and diversity of the products produced.

The “Bronze Age” started around 3,300 BC.  How (or even why) early Man figured out how to take raw copper ore (a rock), and raw tin ore (another rock, Cassiterite), heat each (smelt) until they melted so they could further be fashioned into tools is anyone’s guess – as is how they discovered that combining the two resulted in the alloy Bronze, whose strength was a magnitude greater than each individually.  But as with Stone, production in Bronze started primitively and evolved over time as need and technique improved.

And finally, the “Iron Age” might stretch back to 2,500 BC as noted by a discovery of a dagger with an iron blade found in Anatolia, but there is evidence of iron being used to make tools as far back as 4,000 BC in Chaldaea and Assyria.  We all know that the working of iron improved over the years (including the inventing of the alloy, Steel) and are still being improved upon today.

So why all of this history?  What is its relevance to 3-D Printing?

The invention of 3-D Printing is only a couple of decades old, not millennia.  Who knows how the technology of 3-D Printing might evolve in the near future, not to mention a century from now – and what impact it might have on society.

Certainly, fabricating tools from resins which can be recycled has its many benefits – not the least of which might be the implications for manned space flight as in the video above.  But if man turned his Stone, Bronze and Iron tools into weapons, what can possibly make us believe that 3-D Printing (and the materials developed) might also be used for weapons?

Take the simple firearm, for instance.  Already there are people who are able to “print” firearms using the 3-D Printers and raw materials that exist today.  Sure, they might not hold-up under too much physical strain presently, but that will change over time as the materials and production processes evolve.

One science, which is not often cited when discussing 3-D Printing, is Mechanical Engineering and its sub-discipline of Finite Element Analysis.  Much in the same way carbon-fiber evolved from making bobsleds to aircraft, the science of the materials used in 3-D Printing will become better understood. Newer materials and processes will be invented that will have characteristics which are better aligned for producing a greater variety of products for a greater variety of purposes.  And as the physical properties are understood, Finite Element Analysis Applications can be leveraged to predict how materials and the products made will withstand the forces of physics (such as heat, stress, motion, etc…) so that products not even dreamed-of today might someday become a reality.  After all, if you can dream it, you can design it – and if you can design it, you can build it.

However, we must keep in mind that the weapons of today look the way they do because of a combination of ergonomics, material characteristics, and the mechanical engineering necessary to coax the materials used to manufacture the products into performing the tasks for which they were designed as they were intended.  There is no reason that the products of tomorrow – built with the materials and processes of tomorrow – will have to look like the products of today.

But can society and government keep-up with the evolving technology?  History indicates that both will be laggards – forever in a reactionary mode, unable to anticipate the capacity for a people’s innovation.  This is probably how it should be – fore how can one make a regulation for something that does not exist?

The problems arise when society and government are too much the laggard or try to apply antiquated regulations for situations of the past to those of the present as if they are the same.

Consider the United States Postal Service; although the organization is supposed to run as an autonomous enterprise outside without government support, it is forever near bankruptcy because the business is prohibited from evolving by Congress.  Does anyone today really need Saturday Delivery?  Heck, maybe residential deliveries can be cut to every other day.  If this action is combined with a revival of the “blue-box” for mail that is being sent, a lot of cost could be eliminated with very little reduction in service (certainly, no reduction that is of value and will truly be missed).  After all, why should the postman be compelled to visit a home which, most of the time, will not have any outgoing mail?

Another law that will be rendered obsolete by 3-D Printing is New York State’s recently passed law that makes the possession of magazines or “clips” beyond a certain capacity illegal.  Obviously, this will make them more difficult to obtain as manufacturers will be reluctant to build a product with limited (or non-existent) private use (of course, there will still be demand from the armed services and officers of the law).  And mind you, this is not a judgment or commentary on the intent of the law, but rather its enforceability due to advances in technology (never mind that the law might not be necessary if other laws already in place were enforced).

But as this video demonstrates, you can create any size clip – for any weapon – you can dream of and design.  Or if you are not engineering inclined (or just plain lazy), you can download the design, push a button, and just wait.  Who knows, someday maybe there will be an “App” for that.

Years ago, probably the late 1980’s, I had to send a program we had developed to a customer in the United Kingdom.  The client was in a hurry to obtain the program so I organized for a floppy-disk containing the program to be delivered via Federal Express – fastest way.  A few days later, the package was returned to me as the contents of the floppy were not “certified as to be devoid of prohibited information and able to be exported.”

So I called my client and asked if he had a modem.  At 19.2kbs, the transfer of the program took a little while; but it got there faster and cheaper than via Federal Express and I didn’t have to bother the government for anything.

Yes; every advance in technology as potentially significant as 3-D Printing comes with great promise and opportunity – some not even dreamed of today – the great “unknown”.  The Creative Destruction (or Schumpter’s Gale) that is the heart of innovation and progress demands that new technologies and methodologies will supplant the old – and those who are industrious and creative and who adapt and leverage these technologies of the future will benefit; the industries who remain blind to the progress will perish.

Take Kodak, as an example.  Kodak invented the technologies which were key to the development of the digital camera.  But the executive leadership at Kodak did not adopt and develop these new technologies for no other reason than Kodak was not a photography company, but a chemical company with billions invested in chemical infrastructure dedicated to servicing the photography industry – and there were no chemicals involved in digital photography.  And today Kodak is bankrupt.

With every significant advance in technology also comes the “unknown, unknowns – the ones we don’t know that we don’t know” (as Donald Rumsfeld once famously described the potential for threats).  As a society, we should be prepared to address these “unknown, unknowns” as they materialize – but with rules of engagement that suit the modern, not trying to fit the round-peg of the future into the square-hole of the past.

Right now, 3-D Printing is in the “Thesis” stage of the Hegelian Dialectic.  We should expect that there will be a lot of “hype”, especially from those early adopters eagerly seeking investments.  Certainly some of these early adopters might become wildly successful – but more than likely, the second-generation innovators will be the ones able to cut-through the hype, approach the technology from a less emotional and more pragmatic perspective, and become the real winners.  Only time will tell.

By Joseph F Paris Jr

Photo of Joseph Paris of XONITEKParis is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence. 

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 25,000 members.

For more information on Paris, please check his Linked-In Profile at:

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