3-D Printing Promises to Change Manufacturing

Feb 29, 2016

Atoms, unlike bits, are hard to manipulate. Advances in how we rearrange them come slowly, but the payoff can be enormous.

Think new, never-before-seen products mass-produced from materials that once seemed exotic. Next to microchips, there is no more powerful unlocking technology than materials science.

Not long ago I held the product of such a potentially game-changing technology in my hands—a small, intricately detailed component for a valve. It looked like the shell of a nautilus from an alien planet. With its combination of lightness, strength and finish, the component felt very much like the future. And not just the next five years, but the next 50.

The object I held was unusual for two reasons: what it was made of, and how it was made.

It was made of carbon fiber, a man-made material used in airplanes, race cars and wind turbines that is stronger, ounce for ounce, than steel or aluminum. But it is expensive, and surprisingly labor intensive to make, requiring workers to cut, layer and mold sheets of plastic infused with carbon fiber—an oddly 18th century approach to making a 21st century material.

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