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Is 3D printing — where objects are built layer by layer (with plastics, or in some cases other materials) via something akin to an ink jet printer — ‘the future’ of manufacturing, or will it largely be the realm of hobbyists churning out useful and kitschy playthings?

At Technology Review Christopher Mims argues that the latter is more likely, although he acknowledges that 3D printing (aka additive manufacturing) will have a place in rapid prototyping within existing firms. 3D printing had a large presence at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, with falling costs of hardware and rising numbers of ‘apps’ signalling declining barriers to designing and making your own widgets. Have a look at Thingiverse to see what DIYer’s are already printing.

Tim Maly challenges Christopher’s perspective. While agreeing that current designs and materials are on the whole fairly crappy, he takes a longer view of how this type of manufacturing will play out. Both agree there is plenty of hype at the moment.

Aircraft parts and other industrial components though are being printed and used, as are some body parts. Print your own food and clothes too. You may also want to look at how AUT’s Centre for Rapid Product Development is exploring the potential for additive manufacturing.

3D printing is already entering the classrooms of some secondary schools elsewhere. There are also school competitions for 3D designs. What with robot competitions, PCR machines, and iPads in schools these days, there’s a lot more to stimulate and entice and engage future scientists and engineers.

One analysis suggests that 3D printing may find its niche in the non-mass production zone; producing items in the 10 to 10,000 unit range.

Critical factors for future wider adoption of 3D printing include faster printing, scaling up production, better design tools,  the development of new materials (so high performance objects can be made) and developing standards for these materials. There is also concern brewing over intellectual property issues. Particularly, how IP law may be applied as 3D printing becomes more widely known and tries to maintain an open source ethos. If your future cell phone includes a good 3D scanner will it be OK to scan any object you come across and then go home and recreate it? How about downloading someone else’s design?

On a broader level, it is important to view 3D printing as part of the future manufacturing environment, not as the new environment. A UK Foresight report on Technology and Innovation Futures in the in 2020‘s [PDF, 0.8 MB] notes the rise of manufacturing on demand, helped in part by 3D printing. This report highlights the necessity to consider manufacturing as the provision of services as well as products. Some companies already do this (in the aeronautical sector, for example). In the future, more value may come from the service side of the manufacturing business.

The New Zealand government is keen to boost high value manufacturing. MSI’s Request for Proposals for High Value Manufacturing and Services is out. However, they are looking to invest only around $26 million a year. And this could be spread across a whole range of areas, including geothermal engineering, agricultural technologies, digital content tools, and medical devices. So a relatively small amount of the research money, even if you add in industry co-funding. How well prepared and supported will our manufacturing sector be as other economies put ever greater emphasis on new manufacturing initiatives?