“She’s going to be an architect one day!” parents often joke about their children who love to play with Lego’s or Lincoln Logs. There is more truth to this than you might think. Children who play with construction toys tend to develop skills necessary for the STEM world at a young age. A new age version of this concept is 3D printers, also known as additive manufacturing (AM). Parents can purchase small version 3D printers for their children, or you may be able to find them available at your local library, free of charge. Kids find it fascinating that they can print a toy or small object on demand (as do most parents)! It truly is a remarkable technology. What is even more notable is that while letting your children have fun, you are introducing them to a technology that will likely be the standard process when they eventually enter the workforce.
The name additive manufacturing comes from the idea that this process adds material as needed and therefore creates little to no waste. In short, additive manufacturing describes the technologies that build 3D objects by adding layer-upon-layer of material. This allows materials such as plastic, metal and ceramic to be printed into any model that is input into a printer. Typical manufacturing processes have been subtractive. In this process, you’d start with a solid block of material and pieces are machined away to create the part needed. An advantage of additive manufacturing is the lead time of concept to manufacture. There is not much prep time. Once an engineer finishes a 3D model the part can start printing immediately, unlike traditional manufacturing methods. In part, this is what attracts kids to this technology. It is unlikely that your children ever look at their toys and think about how they were manufactured, but when they toy can be made in front of them in minutes, they will certainly be intrigued. Additive manufacturing has started to be integrated today with traditional manufacturing and in some cases even taking over as the standard process. The aerospace, architecture, medical and automotive industries are all currently integrating 3D printing into many of their projects. For example, the medical industry has been working towards 3D printing organs for transplant, which could eventually save many lives. In the world of architecture, 3D houses have been successfully built and people are even living in these homes! It is likely that in the future, additive manufacturing will result in improvements in our daily lives. For example, with the shorter lead time it will likely allow companies to get parts or products to consumers faster. 3D printing can also allow companies to print certain parts on demand, as opposed to ordering them and thus greatly reducing wait time. These may seem like small feats, but as all of us know (maybe too well), any little thing that saves us time is a victory.
That being said, there are still some areas of AM that need more time to be worked out. Currently, there is a limited amount of raw materials that can be used in additive manufacturing. These raw materials can be very expensive. On average, metals for AM cost five to 10 times more than metals for machining. Another drawback with additive manufacturing is that in certain cases, it can be a slower process than traditional manufacturing and therefore may not be suitable for all manufacturing. Instances. So the next time your child asks for another toy, instead of thinking “Another one?,” consider buying them a 3D printer to expose them to a new and upcoming technology. It will be an investment to their future. It could also introduce a concept that even many adults (maybe even yourself) find foreign.
Bianca aRusso and Kara Manion are current MBA students at the University of Rhode Island. Both Bianca and Kara grew up in Johnston. Combined they have ten years of work experience in the fields of Engineering and Finance.