Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Rapid Prototyping Journal, Volume 20, Issue 1
Additive manufacturing (AM) is sometimes heralded as a sort of “next industrial revolution. Indeed, as long ago as 2006, I wrote a chapter for the book Rapid Manufacturing – An Industrial Revolution for the Digital Age. Whether or not the use of AM or 3D printing will have the same degree of impact upon the world as the original industrial revolution remains to be seen, although I personally doubt it. One reason is that the first industrial revolution, whilst beginning in Europe, impacted the rest of the world through empire building that created the markets for the new goods being produced. The world political scene has changed greatly since then so a similar impact is not really possible.
One aspect of the “AM industrial revolution that I notice is that most of the talk about new AM-enabled products refers to high value products that are being sold at a premium to those who can afford it in the developed countries. So we see customised car interiors or personalised hearing aids or expensive pieces of jewellery. All these are, of course, legitimate uses of AM but what impact are they actually having on the majority of the worlds inhabitants? It would seem from all the hype about 3D printing in the press that it is about to take over the world but I would argue that there are whole regions of the world where 3D printing is virtually unknown. I am referring to parts of Asia, Africa and South America, sometimes called the developing economies. How often do we see applications of AM that are targeted at communities such as these? And yet, there are at least as many people living in these countries as in the developed economies.
There are some notable exceptions. The Central University of Technology, Free State, in South Africa worked with the London South Africa organisation to produce AM moulds that could be used with traditional weaving techniques. This enabled new designs of high quality products to be realised and exported to the UK. In this case, both a developing community and a wealthy community benefitted. But the AM machine used was located in a university lab and probably never even seen by most of the people involved in the project. To help address this issue, Vaal University of Technology (VUT), also in South Africa, intends to create a mobile “Ideas to Product Laboratory™ that will be taken out to rural communities to introduce school children and others to low-cost 3D printing technologies. Whilst giving a seminar on the topic of AM, Prof. Deon de Beer of the VUT was asked if initiatives such as this could begin a new industrial revolution in developing economies, even before they have caught up on the first industrial revolution. What an interesting idea! Could 3D printing enable whole areas of the world to “leapfrog over centuries of gradual economic and industrial progress to become “players in the global economy? Can we envisage a scenario where low-cost 3D printers are used in rural communities not just to create products that are locally useful, but also those that could be sold into developed economies? There are many problems that would need to be addressed before this could be feasible, such as a reliable source of electricity and fast distribution networks. I believe it is a challenge to the AM research community to find out how this should be done and to bring our “next industrial revolution to the whole world.
R. Ian Campbell