Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Achieving the Internet of Things through 3d printing

The Internet of Things is not a new concept, having been discussed in literature since 1991 and coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999. However, until recently, the concept has been regarded as more futuristic than practical. Technological innovations such as RFID and QR codes have laid the foundation for the digital cataloging of items, in a robust enough manner as to make the concept of on-demand web based inventories feasible, but now a new wave of hardware and software innovations in the field of 3D printing is making the Internet of Things a reality.

3D printing, known to those in the field as additive manufacturing, is becoming ubiquitous in the manufacturing world. The technology is not new, having been used in the field of rapid prototyping for over 25 years. But recent advancements in the field catalyzed by the expiration of a few key patents have thrust 3d printing into the eye of the public as prices are plummeting and the software and hardware for 3d printing has become much more widely available and useable. More and more, 3d printers are being utilized for end good fabrication instead of mere prototyping. And an inherent benefit to the technology is that one-off goods can be made affordably, without requiring the large volumes necessary for traditional manufacturing methods.

Companies like Shapeways are creating avenues for designers to sell their 3d models online, and have these goods manufactured, personalized, and fabricated through the web and shipped directly to customers. An interesting application that is being discussed and will have large effects on global supply chains, is in the midst of being implemented: 3D printing replacement parts for broken or defective components, especially for products that have been retired and are no longer being manufactured. Companies like 3DLT are partnering with content providers and big name manufacturers to license 3d models of existing and outdated components, so that soon instead of returning an entire product for repair, broken parts will be able to be shipped on demand, or even printed out at the point of need. This spells less waste and headaches for supply chain managers and less of a burden on repair teams when defective items can be repaired with a simple fix. With technologies like 3D printing paving the way, experts estimate that around 25-30 billion devices will be wirelessly connected to the Internet of Things by the year 2020.

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