As the government breaks ground on the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a $70 million public-private scheme to industrialize 3-D printing, the hope is the U.S. can once again compete in low-cost manufacturing.
But 3-D printing–which involves building objects by printing and layering molten plastic and other materials–promises not only to re-shore capacity. It could also help decentralize it by bringing manufacturing to remote areas, and by allowing us to make things in our own homes.
For example: the military is using 3-D printing facilities on the battlefield to reduce the time it takes to fix faulty equipment. According to Military.com, the Army has deployed several 20-foot shipping containers with advanced prototyping machines. Engineers recently fabricated an adaptor and power cable, improving the battery life of a hand-held mine detection device.
3-D printing is already becoming popular among car enthusiasts to make hard-to-find replacement parts. By combining a 3-D scanner with a 3-D printer, it’s possible to craft a plastic mould that can be used to manufacture a part, or even to make a metal part directly.
Another example is Printrbot. Backed last year on Kickstarter to the tune of $830,828, the start-up is one of several companies trying to make 3-D printing affordable for the masses. Inventor Brook Drumm recently started shipping the first units to 35 backers who pledged $750 and more.