In previous posts I have spoken about the potential impact of nanotechnology. However, creating machines smaller than the size of a molecule has often been hindered by issues with power sources. Engineers have invented many miniaturised devices, such as medical implants, but the batteries to power them have been larger than the devices themselves, making them unusable.

However, the revolution in 3D printing has allowed manufacturers to produce batteries smaller than the width of a human hair with the power to maintain super small medical devices. To do this scientists have printed precisely interlaced stacks of tiny battery electrodes, to produce micro batteries smaller than a grain of sand. It is strongly believed, that these 3D printing developments will have a huge impact on the advancement of tiny devices in the field of robotics, medicine and communications.

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Last week, the Associated Press reported that doctors had, for the first time, used a 3D printer to create a life-saving artificial airway for a baby boy. The Ohio child was born with a birth defect that cause his airway to collapse, putting him at constant risk of suffocation until doctors asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for permission to print him a new one. The FDA agreed, although it still hasn’t adopted an official policy on bioprinting body parts. Kaiba Gionfriddo, can now breathe normally, thanks to a biodegradable airway made by a 3D laser printer. 3D printing could potentially be used to create more body parts to solve previously intracatable medical needs.

3D printers deposit successive layers of materials, such as liquids and granular resin – or even cell tissue – to build a physical object from the ground up. This technique is already used in manufacturing to produce dental crowns in dental labs and increasingly in the rapid prototyping of aerospace, automotive and consumer goods. In the medical field, researchers at Shining 3D Tech, a company based in Zhejiang province, showed off an artificial disc implant that can fuse with human cell tissue to avoid rejection. The company predicts that in the future , the technology could be used to manufacture human skeletons from cell tissue and biomaterial.


In addition to commercial and scientific applications, 3D printing will offer consumers the opportunity to manufacture a range of objectives at home, which potentially threatens many commercial operations. For example, householders may have the ability to print their own solar panels.

There have been some concerns about the access to such technologies since a university professor in Toronto manufactured a functioning gun using a 3D printer.

Although some 3D printers are necessarily huge devices as they are used to make complete components such as aircraft parts, others are no larger than existing desk printers. The Maplin group of companies has just begun to sell domestic 3D printers at a price not much greater than top-end laser printers. The Velleman K8200 allows users to make simple objects including mobile phone covers, toys or jewellery and will support budding entrepreneurs with creative ideas to turn these into commercial products.

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Indeed, digital 3D printing promises to disrupt conventional manufacturing and supply chains so radically that advocates compare its impact to the advent of the production line, or the internet. The future implications could be dramatic for major manufacturing countries, such as China. 3D printing could reduce the need for outsourcing by western economies to huge factories staffed by cheap workers and sited on the other side of the world. Orders can be tailored exactly to demand, so no need for stock and warehouses. This will remove the need for long supply chains, with decreasing requirements for stock and, consequently, warehouses to house that stock, and impacts on economies that rely on income from tariffs.

Richard D’Aveni, a professor at Dartmouth College in America, wrote in the Harvard Business Review:

“The first implication is that more goods will be manufactured at or closer to their point of purchase or consumption.

Under a model of widely distributed, highly flexible small-scale manufacturing, the advantages of cheap labour become liabilities. No workforce can be paid little enough to make up for the costs of shipping across oceans.

However, China won’t be a loser in the new era, as it will have a domestic market to serve … and its domestic market is huge. However, it will have to give up on being the mass-manufacturing powerhouse of the world.”

The use of 3D printing may lead to such a transformation in manufacturing that companies like Foxconn, which employs more than one million Chinese workers making consumer electronics for Apple, Sony, Samsung, Nintendo and other household names in technology, might just become obsolete. Foxconn has been using some elements of industrial 3D printing for three decades, but its CEO, Terry Gou, says it is commercially impractical for mass production.

“3D printing is a gimmick,” he told reporters in Taiwan, where Foxconn is based. “If it really is that good, then I’ll write my name backwards from now on.”

China, of course, has reacted to the potential threat by buying western 3D printing technology and making its own lightweight machines to sell to consumers. The ministry of industry and information technology is already funding 10 research centres, set up a group of 40 participating companies and in May, Beijing hosted the World 3D Printing Technology Industry Conference.

In February, President Barack Obama declared that 3D technology could “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made in America”. In the US, Harold Washington has become the first major urban library to open a pop-up “maker lab,” allowing members of the general public the opportunity to experiment with the cutting-edge technologies.

Whether the 3D revolution takes place in China or the US may decide the fate of thousands of companies and millions of employees in the two biggest economies on the globe. It is possible, of course, that other countries will take advantage of the reduced need for economies of scale and throw their hat into the ring.

IB Style questions

1. Define the following terms:

  • Outsourcing
  • Economies of scale

2. Explain the importance of research and development for firms operating in China and the US in relation to 3D printing innovation.

3. Analyse the advantages and disadvantages of 3D printing for large manufacturing corporations, such as Foxconn.

4. Evaluate the potential implications of 3D printing on the distribution channel.