Undoubtedly, 3D printing is reshaping and revolutionizing the way products are developed and produced. With advances in materials and processes, things that would have been almost impossible to manufacture through traditional means, now are feasible, from engineering to medicine, from food to fashion and design, from airplane parts to cars, and from electronics to education. 3D printing is one of the hottest STEM fields today. Despite the media attention, there is still a great deal of ambiguity about what 3D can do and what its future may hold.
3D printed objects are already being used in a wide range of fields. The manufacturing industry is the leader in 3D printing, revolutionizing all sectors like aerospace, automotive, defense, and countless other commercial and consumer products. More than 70% of manufacturers are currently employing 3D printing in some way, with a lot more planning to adopt it in the future. In medicine/healthcare, additive manufacturing is a natural fit for customized patient-specific bio devices. This is probably the field where the most innovative applications of 3D printing technology are happening today. The idea of replacing damaged body parts is well underway at Universities, hospitals, and research centers around the world e.g. bioprinting tissues and organs, customized implants and prostheses, anatomical models for surgical procedures, custom-designed teeth/bridges/crowns in dentistry, etc. Applying the existing technology on a very large scale, 3D printing can be used in construction, building houses, or even larger buildings. Artists of every kind are also taking advantage of 3D technology. The development of 3D-printed edible products is real and growing, which has the potential to expand into creating highly nutritious foods using alternative sources such as algae that could then be used to help feed large populations. In education, 3D printing is believed to have the potential to enhance the school curriculum at all levels, from elementary to higher education. However, it is slower to expand mostly due to budget restrictions and, sometimes, a lack of familiarity among the educators. But with the right resources, 3D printing can be built into everyday lesson plans, allowing teachers to present information and educational content in creative and interactive ways that were never available in previous generations.
3D printing is a relatively new technology, but many advantages have already proven themselves like cost savings (especially during the prototyping stage in the development of almost any new product), shorter time-to-market, and the ability to create highly customizable and personalized products. Apart from the exciting benefits and possibilities, there are also some new challenges. For example, safety, security, and quality standards are always a concern. Everyone can produce items that may be dangerous to the safety and security of themselves and others or counterfeit products that may be of substandard quality. 3D printed products are subject to copyright just like those developed by traditional means. Given the democratized nature of 3D printing production, patent and copyright processes and regulations may result in lawsuits and other regulatory issues of patented items. Increased energy consumption is another concern for some types of 3D printers (e.g. direct-metal laser-sintering DMLS) which may consume hundreds of times more electrical power than conventional casting and machining processes. In addition, 3D printing may pose several other environmental challenges, such as air pollution (emission of nanoparticles of plastic) and greater reliance on plastics.
For the most part, innovations in technology have a positive impact on the job market. The explosion in 3D printing has brought a number of benefits and challenges. The transition from conventional methods of product prototyping and modeling has already resulted in increases in job opportunities for workers trained in CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and related design programs. The long-term effects on the manufacturing of goods due to 3D printing remain uncertain. Many speculate that it will result in fewer conventional manufacturing/assembly line positions globally, but may also spur the return of jobs outsourced in other countries. The 3D printing industry is expected to grow rapidly, which may also affect retail jobs. The question rests on just how pervasive the use of personal 3D printing of consumer goods will become. If individuals begin producing their own goods, there may be a drop in retail sales and, in turn, a decrease in retail jobs. On the other hand, an increase in 3D printer use may expand the need for retail sales in the industry itself.
Having all the above in mind, there are a lot of opportunities and educational aspects leading to careers in 3D Printing. Below are examples of potential paths and careers.
3D Modeler or CAD designer: The advent of CAD and specialized design programs has opened up new job options. 3D modelers build 3D characters and environments using a variety of software programs. Graphic art firms and video game companies look for 3D artists. Many can also be employed to produce film effects or make physical props for movie and television production companies or in creating 3D printed objects for other professionals. CAD specialists use software programs to design, generate and manage digital representations of physical objects and structures. Most jobs will require extensive experience and/or training in a variety of design software formats.
Interior Designer, Art and Architecture: Interior designers are employed to make interior spaces in home and business environments safe, efficient, functional, and beautiful. Advances in 3D printing have made it possible to create decorative objects and even furniture that can aid in this pursuit. 3D printing has also numerous applications in building design, creating mock-ups and dioramas, and even in building construction.
Biomedical Technology and Engineering: The combination of science and engineering with biology and physiology is used to analyze and address problems related to medicine and healthcare delivery. There is a lot of demand for developing and improving medical devices and procedures, creating and evaluating artificial organs, or new equipment to maximize human performance. Another example are systems that produce highly individualized medications (pharmaceutical technologists use 3D printing to produce medications that allow for extremely precise dosages that can be accurately reproduced in quantity and in a wide range of formulations like pills, tablets, liquids, etc.).
Prosthesis and Implant Designer: 3D printing of prostheses and implants is distinguished from bioprinting in that the devices created are artificial. Prosthesis and implant designers employ a variety of software programs in creating customized implants to suit specific patient needs.
Software Development: The 3D printing industry always needs better and, perhaps most importantly, more user-friendly software to design and manufacture products. As a result, the industry has become a top destination for software development professionals. Software developers could write code to help improve 3D printing products and focus on important aspects such as testability, maintainability, and scalability.
Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Engineering: Engineering is the biggest source of today’s 3D printing professionals. This discipline is a combination of design, construction, and machines, which is an ideal path for those interested in the 3D printing world and has a variety of applications. The automotive industry has already begun to create and develop 3D printed cars in the hopes of creating innovative products, an accelerated development process, efficient part replacement, and further personalization. Industrial engineers have traditionally been trained to eliminate waste in production processes and to increase productivity. This taps into the use of 3D printing to design and build machinery that supports rapid prototyping and standardized production methods.
3D Printer Operator: 3D printer operators are responsible for all aspects of running and maintaining 3D printing jobs, including setting up the machine and loading it with the proper materials; performing size calibrations; managing files; tracking the project’s progress, and performing machine maintenance between jobs.
Self-employment and start-up companies: For those thinking of starting a new business, 3D printing offers opportunities for innovation, not only in creating products but also for entrepreneurship. 3D printing spans across various technical and design fields, many of which make great business ideas to support companies’ 3D printing needs.
Educator: As the 3D printing industry expands, teachers with specific knowledge and experience with 3D printing systems are needed to train future professionals in both the technical and business aspects of 3D printing. For educators, having an understanding of 3D modeling and 3D printing techniques will be invaluable, as the culture of fabrication labs is starting to gain support as an important aspect of education. 3D printing educators may also be employed by private manufacturers to develop courses or workshops dedicated to 3D printing and related technologies. The future workforce of 3D printing will need proper education and STEAM skills.
Without a doubt, 3D printing is changing our world and will lead to groundbreaking STEM careers in the years to come.