Can 3D printer trigger industrial revolution in 21st century?   21世紀の産業革命起こす技術? ―3Dプリンターの可能性―  

The 3D printer has come to be frequently played up in the media since 2012 when Chris Anderson, the former editor in chief of Wired magazine, took up the technology in his book, “Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.” In 2013, President Obama also referred to the technology in his State of the Union address. He said, “We created our first manufacturing innovation institute in Youngstown, Ohio. A once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything. There’s no reason this can’t happen in other towns.” He added, “So tonight, I’m announcing the launch of three more of these manufacturing hubs, where businesses will partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.” This made 3D printing well known among Japanese people, too. Hakumon Herald tries to look at the present and future of 3D printing which Anderson, now CEO of 3D Robotics, introduced as a technology that may trigger an industrial revolution in the 21st century.




The 3D printer is a device that creates three-dimensional objects based on computer-generated designs. The 3D printing itself is nothing quite new. It was first commercialized in the United States by 3D Systems Corp. back in 1987. For a while, it was used in the space and automobile industries as a means to make trial products or models. The 3D printers did not become widespread among the general public because they cost too much, with some of the machine retailing for hundreds of millions of dollars per unit, and because the precision of the three- dimensional objects produced by them was lower than that of products made by traditional machines.



Their prices went down and their market was developed in the 2000s as the companies that produced them were integrated through a spate of mergers. Today, Stratasys Limited and 3D Systems Corp. are the two giants in the 3D printer industry. In addition to the market development pushed by the duo, the time limit for the patent license of the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), one of the methods used in 3D printing, ran out in 2009. This helped further slash the prices. In Japan, the cheapest 3D printer is now priced between 20,000 and 30,000 yen. Also, the debut of new models with a higher degree of precision has made them affordable to general consumers.




The use of 3D printers is now widespread and diversified. In medical field, a method has been developed to allow a doctor to explain the state of the affected part of a patient’s body and treatment by using a model of the organ made with a 3D printer. With the conventional anatomical model technology, making organ models for individual patients with different disease conditions is both costly and time-consuming. So, by using a 3D printer that can make various organ models and anatomical models of the human body in a short time, doctors have become able to make diagnoses with a model that exactly shows a patient’s disease conditions. Such organ models are helpful in a simulation before an operation and can contribute to enhancing the success rate of the operation.




Furthermore, 3D printers are expected to play a big role in the field of regenerative medicine. For example, a study is under way on the idea that making an organ with induced pluripotent stem cell (IPS cells) may pave the way for organ transplantation free from rejection. Scientists have already succeeded in artificially creating tissues that are thin and have no special functions, such as the skin and the cornea. However, they have not been successful yet in producing organs that have complicated structures and assume high physiological functions, such as the heart and the lung.




A 3D food printer is another indication of the expanding use of 3D printing. Surprisingly, it is going to be used for food cooking. This printer can make foods different in textures and forms when powdered nutrients and spices are piled up and mixed with oil and water. Households using the printer will be able to cook any dish if they have materials and recipes. That may inevitably bring changes to the food service industry.




How popular the 3D printers will become in the future remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. They will greatly change people’s living environment. In Japan, the 3D printers moved into the limelight all of a sudden in May 2014 when a man who forged a lifelike gun with his printer was arrested for violating the Swords and Firearms Control Law. It looks certain that 3D printers will add to their presence along the way.



(Written by Teruya Hirabayashi)