What is… industrial 3D printing?

A monthly tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Elana Spivack — July 21, 2022

Everyone knows pixels, but you’re probably less familiar with the voxel, the building block of 3D printing. These matter-building machines read a file and can produce a new, custom object in hours. What’s more, they can print a variety of materials from metals to plastic. When paired with computer-aided design (CAD) software, 3D printers can print nearly anything from a tiny engine part to an entire house. Industrial 3D printing combines a machine’s awesome capability to churn out thousands of products with a computer’s precision, heralding a Fourth Industrial Revolution that is transforming manufacturing and industry.

Eric Chow

How it works

3D printers are fairly similar to ink printers. Both source their information from a digital file, reading it for instructions on what to print. Instead of ink, 3D printers use a material called the filament — which can be metal, plastic, carbon fiber, or another substance — that can be molded as the final product prints. With industrial 3D printing, this process occurs at a much larger scale, allowing for mass production of customized parts and products, resulting in less waste, a faster timeline, and on-demand manufacturing.


RELATED: What is… artificial intelligence?


The a-ha moment

Industrial 3D printing comes from humble beginnings. Prototypes, called Rapid Prototyping technologies, came in the 1980s as a cheaper way to draft products without wasting pricey materials. In 1986, American inventor and father of stereolithography Chuck Hull patented this method, and developed the ability to print a physical object from a digital file. As printers improved, got cheaper, and became easier to use, their popularity grew. By 2010, 3D printers had created blood vessels using human cells, a functional kidney, and a prosthetic leg. With proof of use, 3D printers were poised to jump from creating single items to developing a diverse suite of products.

What it means for everyday life

Industrial 3D printing’s strength lies in its nimbleness, efficiency, and sustainability. Mass production right now is based on a one-size-fits-all hypothesis, while 3D printing-based  perfects mass personalization, and it addresses both the large-scale and fine-tuning, printing on demand so no materials go to waste. Industrial 3D printing is being used to make everything from aerospace parts, race cars, sustainable packaging, even discontinued car parts, while it helps people get perfectly fitted prosthetics, custom shoes, dental aligners, and build customized furniture.

How it might change the world

Scaling up 3D printing could transform the mode of mass production instead of only catering to a few industries. In a matter of time, mass personalization will touch every market as industrial 3D printing integrates into manufacturing, but that’s just the start. As it gets more sophisticated, industrial 3D printing will be able to print any design from more innovative materials, including new polymers, from metals to ceramics, and hybrids, and make every product faithful to each unique facet. Companies will print on an as-needed basis, creating as many items as there are orders to reduce waste. This means there won’t be any unsold orders taking up warehouse space, and any leftover raw material can be recycled. And it has the potential to reshape our world, with integrated 3D printed electronics, 3D printed homes and cars, and even 3D printed medicine, tissue, and organs, giving people longer, healthier lives.