We live in an era of such dramatic, technology-enabled change that it's hard, sometimes, to get a real handle on just how important the latest new platform or digital business trend will be.

When it comes to 3D printing there is no longer any doubt. After all, this is a technology that has been employed, on a specialist scale, within industry for decades. But, much like the way the modern personal computer grew out of, and disrupted, the mainframe computing industry, the advent of personal and portable 3D printers is set to radically change the world of manufacturing, fashion and even medicine.

Combined with the growth of Internet of Things-connected devices, the power of mobile networks and a growing entrepreneurial culture of "making" through digital technology, 3D printing will soon become a crucial tool in modern life.

We're not quite there yet though so, in Sustainly's latest Trend Briefing, we've decided to look at the way 10 organizations and companies are using 3D printing to create better, more sustainable products and experiences to help the world and their businesses. In doing so we hope to offer some insight into the real possibilities of 3D printing.

Take IBM. It has developed a microscopic 3D printer capable of creating microchip board prototypes at a third of the cost of a standard prototype. Then there's construction and engineering giant Arup. It 3D prints steel specialty parts at the locations where they are needed rather than having a central production plant and then shipping the products around the world. Other companies like Google and Autodesk are creating the collaborative platforms and software to scale 3D design and printing, while organizations like Reef Arabia are 3D printing environmental solutions to mitigate the effects of climate change.

One of the most interesting areas where 3D printing will effect change is in medicine. We've already seen how organizations like iLab in Haiti have 3D printed medical products like umbilical cord clamps that are hard to find in a country still recovering from a devastating hurricane. Hospitals in the US and UK, meanwhile, are 3D printing customized replacement hips and other synthetic joints that match the body types of each recipient. Next comes so-called bio-printing where start ups like Orgonovo 3D print human cells and tissue to reproduce body parts.

Of course, not all 3D printing projects offer such life-affirming and saving possibilities as demonstrated by the media furore that erupted when the first 3D printed gun was successfully made. And, yes, the current method of 3D printing creates its own waste and environmental challenges to be overcome.

Yet even controversial creations like guns demonstrate the personalized power of production that 3D printing offers. Just as the birth of online heralded the era of digital content creation that would reshape the music, publishing and film industries so 3D printing suggests a whole new set of industry sectors better get ready for change–hopefully one that is more efficient, cost effective and sustainable than how we've made things before.

Published on: Jul 22, 2015
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