3D printing expert discusses its future

Adidas 3D printing

Photo: Steinar Killi / Innomag.no
Adidas has launched its Futurecraft 4D, a running shoe with a 3D printed sole.

Vegard Skjervheim

“The first 3D printer was shown at a car show in Detroit in 1988, and the technology celebrates its 30th anniversary this year,” says Steinar Killi, professor at the Oslo Architectural and Design College and 3D printing expert.

But how much of the potential have we managed to extract during those years—and what will the future bring?

The technology behind 3D printing had already been invented in the late 1980s and is among the oldest of the technology trends we believe will change the world, according to Killi. Printing of organs, food, tailor-made clothing, and spare parts—the potential is endless. In theory, a 3D printer can be used to create almost anything.

“The original idea behind the technology was the ability to produce fast and precise prototypes and models,” said Killi. “Pretty soon, it was also used to create, for example, spare parts, and more-or-less fun objects that were designed to showcase the possibilities of the technology. Examples were a wrench made of only one part, and a ship in a bottle, previously considered impossible.”

He says that from the very beginning he wanted to use 3D printing for something more than model construction. Unfortunately, there have been some obvious challenges related to the technology.

“It took and still takes a long time to produce anything in this way,” he said. “Compared to classic mass production technologies, such as injection molding, it is still very slow. But new technology is still trying to move limits here, and there are exciting things happening. Another challenge is the price. Even though you can buy 3D printers at a very cheap price, there are still costs for both operation and material use.”

Killi also mentions quality as the biggest challenge to overcome.

“One of the challenges is to see the quality of 3D printing independently of other production technologies. Most of them have qualitative advantages and disadvantages. A sandcast brass candleholder, for example, has a natural surface finish that reflects the sand it is produced in. It can be brushed completely blank, but often we would appreciate this surface as part of the product. Similar analogues will probably be required for 3D printed products.”

3D printed products already exist in several areas that we do not think about. The ability to design and customize a product specifically for each user is one of the areas where the 3D printing features are the best. One example is hearing aids.

“We have tailored from having to choose from a few standards and taking the closest one,” says Killi. “The user’s ears are printed, quickly and painlessly, using a silicone bit. This bit is then scanned, and space for electronics is added to the digital model before it is printed. The electronics are inserted, and the user gets a custom-made hearing aid. This has been going on for 15 years now and has become a major industry.”

He also notes metal printing as an area of potential. “Complex systems can be made in part, optimized in terms of strength and weight, which opens up many possibilities. In Norway, Kongsberg Innovation is far ahead, and pushing further.”

Killi believes we will see more of mass production in the future.

“I, as well as other experts, have said that this is just around the corner. The example of hearing aids is mass production, even though the correct word here will be mass customization. The first real attempt from a big brand is Adidas launching its Futurecraft 4D, a running shoe with a 3D printed sole. The idea is to produce tens of thousands of this shoe. The sole is designed to accommodate different users, thus allowing a mass production of unique shoes. If this is a success, it will probably open the eyes of more heavily involved players.”

What about organ printing? How far has that come?

“This is happening in laboratories around the world, but it’s not just a technological issue,” said Killi. ”Ethical issues must also be solved. But the potential is huge, and maybe this is where we will see the big breakthroughs. The economy and complexity in this area are particularly suitable for 3D printing.”

According to Killi, 3D printing appears in many ways a paradox: The strength lies in enormous form and relatively inexpensive production with high complexity, but the operating benefits are small. This makes it a production form that is not suitable in all contexts.

“In normal mass production, startup costs will often be high, a tool can quickly cost one million or more,” he said. “Then you have to produce many parts to write off the tool. For 3D printing, there is no tool cost to write off, and we will be left with the actual production cost in the printer. At a low amount, the 3D printer will thus compete for mass production. This allows for the production of niche products, complex products, tailoring and so on.”

However, a factor often not included is development costs. In mass production, this is depreciated in the same way as the tool, for each part that is produced. However, these costs are not lost when using 3D printing, so that they must be included in the cost of production for each item.

“If a designer has used 70 hours, a low number for a complex product, it will soon be seen that the retail price is more than three times the cost of production,” said Killi. “So, like normal mass production, we will need a certain number of manufactured devices to cover all costs.”


This article was originally published in Norwegian on Aug. 20 by innomag.no (www.innomag.no/5-tech-trender-som-vil-dominere-fremtiden-3d-printing-med-steinar-killi) as part of a series on five tech trends, including IoT, Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence, which originally appeared in the print edition.

This article originally appeared in the September 7, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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