One of the most visible elements of the 4th Industrial Revolution is the growth of 3D printing or additive manufacturing.
Factories of the future are expected to deploy this technology en-masse in order to rapidly produce a dizzying variety of parts and products.
While the first 3D printers worked only in low-quality plastic, often with poor fidelity and low durability, modern systems can now print in a wide variety of materials from metals to composites and even food.
What’s more, the accuracy and quality of the final products have improved to such a degree that 3D printed components are now being used in some of the most demanding industries such as aerospace and automobile manufacturing.
At the 2017 Smart Factory Expo in Liverpool, a large array of companies are unsurprisingly showing off the latest in this additive manufacturing technology.
Among them is ProtoLabs, a US-based rapid manufacturing company. For several years now they have been leveraging 3D printing for a wide range of parts, including prototypes, small-run production parts and even medical equipment and implants.
“Year on year we see new advances in 3D printing, we see new companies come into the market. I think some of the breakthroughs will come in getting more production-ready parts from 3D printing,” explains Peter Needham from ProtoLabs.
But it’s not just metal and plastic products which are now being printed – some of the most interesting applications of this technology are rather easier to swallow.
The University of Birmingham, in an exhibit, has been showing off new research into the 3D printing of edible food items.
Using gels and pastes, their 3D printer is able to print rapidly customisable food products with an impressive level of accuracy.
While 3D printed food is unlikely to take over from traditionally-manufacturing food products in the short or medium term, it does boast some unique advantages, such as customised nutrition, decreased wastage, and the ability for consumers to order completely unique products.
“You get to exploit the niche market in which you can have customised shape, customised texture, customized nutrition of food,” says Saumil Vadodaria from the School of Chemical Engineering at the University of Birmingham.
“I don’t see 3D printed food factories coming anytime soon, but it’s more going to be at a point of sale. For example, you will go to the supermarket and place an order for a cake with the logo of your favourite football team, and then on the way out, you just collect your cake, as it has been printed and ready.”