As most of us now realise (or for those who've not turned on their computer recently...), 3d printing technology looks like it’s here to stay, showing strong signs of growth and a more positive attitude upon its potential to revolutionise the manufacturing industry. For us in the UK, the technology embodies the key values which many are predicting will reshape the manufacturing economy across the country. Alastair Sorbie, the COE of IFS operates a global enterprise in software vendoring to industries within manufacture and supply chain management. He outlined his predictions recently as to how the UK economy will develop to gain back manufacturing capabilities, specifically through providing a more on-demand service, focusing on shorter production runs and greater service to manage the lifecycle of products. While this may lower profit margins for manufacture, it does open up the service industry to oversee the product lifecycle, through prolonging life with repairability and costomisation of products as well as managing the process of manufacture and delivery. The current expansion of additive manufacturing and low production quantity methods is a step in that direction, providing individualised and tailored output with speed and convenience, with greater involvement from the individual and their specific needs.
Evidently, the technology is becoming further integrated into the manufacturing and supply chain industries due to the benefits it offers to service users as well as its predicted abilities to help reshape the economy within the coming years. For many however, this step up in technology is quite hard to grasp and come to terms with. A recent survey highlighted this point, with 71% of people of all those questions saying they know very little or nothing about 3D printers. The idea of a printer which can 'print' physical objects seems unbelievable. Progress is being made though, with increasing media attention upon the technology in use, showing it in the context of creating objects people are familiar with.
3d printing technology itself however is not hanging around to wait for further appreciation by the masses. 4d printing is beginning to emerge as a new contender for superiority. Unfortunately there are no common domestic products which this could be compared with to help understand how it functions. It has developed into a potential improvement upon 3d printing based upon the object produced having the ability to evolve after manufacture, continuously changing to relate to its local environment. The current method of production churns out solid-state goods, where they live the rest of their life in one state which was determined before its existence. This is not always useful to us as users, as we don't live in a static world. If a product could take into account the evolutionary factors which it operates within, then they could potentially become far, far more useful and relevant, functioning for much longer.
The concept of 4d printing has emerged from technological developments in programming physical and biological materials to change shape, change properties and compute outside of silicon-based matter. Tibbits, a leading researcher in this field recently demonstrated a string of 3d-printed smart materials that reacted when it came into contact with water, folding into a cube. The evolution of a physical object in this manner as Tibbet has shown is possible through designing at a cellular level, building in the potential shifts in state it may go under at the beginning. His process is based upon biomimicry and the way in which the natural world operates. Objects are produced through carefully re-arranging disordered structures into ordered ones which function to the optimum level, a principle which 3d printing also looks to abide by. The use of engineering molecules to build optimum performing products which we cannot provide otherwise does raise concerns however upon the extent of our intervention in shaping our own versions of materials to form objects. Is this desire to engineer our own surroundings to suit our needs having an impact upon our attitudes toward the genetic engineering of life itself?
Many within the field of genetic engineering already refer to everyday living things as 'apps', with cells just being another form of information technology due to the availability of research and the ability to control and manipulate DNA. The attitudes upon modifying life and modifying materials for the purpose of producing physical objects have over time become referred to in similar terms especially within the medical appliance field. With new technologies in manufacture allowing objects to be placed inside the human body to enhance and prolong life, we're already seeing an indirect use of this belief in building upon nature’s capabilities taking shape. Continual progress is being made however in the field of genetic engineering to directly impact life through a pick and mix attitude toward DNA selection, potentially desigining our own existence in the future.
In moving forward, there are clearly vast developments still to come within manufacture, both in terms of the physical object and of the natural world. Care should be taken however to separate the two from one another, as the initial steps may be similar but the conclusions are quite different.
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