3D Printing: The New Industrial Revolution

January 2, 2014  - By

How will 3D printing and the geospatial community affect each other?

Many of us in the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) business chuckled at the publicity stunt Amazon pulled by demonstrating UAV doorstep delivery of packages. This was smart marketing by Amazon, and although the technology may not be farfetched, the institutional issues are and will create a long, steep hill for Amazon to climb. There is, however, a growing revolution that Amazon is not talking about that could give them some serious challenges in the not-too-distant future — 3D printing. Last August I wrote about significant improvements in 3D printing demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), including creation of metal parts. This technology will most likely affect the geospatial community in ways we haven’t considered, but we geospatial experts will also have an impact on the 3D printing community.


How far has 3D printing come?

The first 3D printer I saw in action was a terrain printer at the Esri User Conference about five years ago. The concept was very simple. The printer laid down a thin 12-x-12-inch layer of special powder, followed by inkjet print heads that laid down ink that both colored and fused the powder. The process took hours as layer on layer of powder and ink built the terrain model. When complete, the uninked powder was brushed away, revealing the solid 3D model. The model could have complex undercut shapes such as a highway overpass, but the material was also somewhat brittle like unfired clay. Users could create more durable objects by using the models as forms to make castings out of aluminum or epoxies.

metal object

Developers of the budding technology have not stood still. New printers use plastic filaments to build up 3D objects, and some even use exotic technology to build objects made of fused metal such as this example. Repair parts can be created by using a 3D laser scanner to create 3D CAD models that can then be modified to add reinforcement where needed to make the replacement part better than the original. Bio-medical printers are being used to create human body parts such as ear cartilage, artery sections and dental appliances like this replacement jaw. There are even some experiments planned next year as Performative Architecture to print buildings with plumbing and other components included. On a micro level, scientists are printing complex nano devices and chemical compounds to create objects that can’t be produced in any other way.

An 83-year-old woman has become the first person to have a 3D printer-created jaw fitted. (from The Telegraph).

An 83-year-old woman has become the first person to have a 3D printer-created jaw fitted. (from The Telegraph).

A 285 µm racecar, printed at the Vienna University of Technology (from Phys.org).

A 285 µm racecar, printed at the Vienna University of Technology (from Phys.org).

A common phase used by 3D printing practitioners is that “complexity is free” in that it takes no more effort to print something complex than it does something simple. In fact, 3D printing becomes more economical as complexity increases, because labor costs decrease and a greater number of voids reduces the amount of raw material needed to build objects. So, look for objects such as bikes or cycles that look very organic, perhaps made of titanium, with very strong and economic internal cellular construction that may mimic the bones of birds.

How fast are things moving?

Microsoft has just added a “direct pipeline” to 3D printers from 3D printing applications such as Autodesk. If you still aren’t convinced that 3D printing is going mainstream, consider this. Staples office supply is now offering 3D printing at some of its printing/shipping centers. Add to these developments the concepts of self-assembly and of use of nano devices and we are entering a very disruptive period and environment. I believe that geospatial aspects of our world will be significantly affected by this technology, but we will also play a significant part in the development and implementation of 3D printing. So let’s speculate on the possible impact on both communities.

Our impact on the 3D printing community

Those trained in geospatial tools and techniques are well positioned to develop and operate 3D manufacturing systems. Most of us have excellent computer skills as well as the ability to visualize complex 3D objects, while also working with abstract concepts. We also understand 3D modeling software, linked databases and web development tools. Many of us have sophisticated software development knowledge and the ability to manage complex systems and processes. If architectural printing actually becomes a reality, GIS/CAD/BIM will be an integral part of the total process. So whether you remain on a geospatial career path or evolve into these new technologies, your knowledge and skills will serve you well.

3D printing’s impact on the geospatial community

“The cheapest 3D printers, which print rudimentary objects, currently sell for between $500 and $1,000. Soon, we will have printers for this price that can print toys and household goods. By the end of this decade, we will see 3D printers doing the small-scale production of previously labor-intensive crafts and goods. It is entirely conceivable that in the next decade we start 3D printing buildings and electronics.” Slashdot


My first speculation is transportation and city growth. You may remember from your geography classes that center cites and edge cities grew out of the need to centralize manufacturing, sales, specialized activity, meetings, etc. If 3D printing becomes ubiquitous, there will be less need for large manufacturing plants, little need for warehouses, and significantly less shipping activity. The primary need for shipping will be for bulk materials used in 3D printing. Since raw materials can be more efficiently shipped than finished bulky goods, there will be greater use of tankers and pipelines.

When I was at the Atlanta Regional Commission, a large portion of our efforts were geared toward regional transportation planning. Using GIS data layers that defined where people work and where they live were key components of these “Origin – Destination” models used to predict traffic patterns. Large manufacturing facilities were always key employment centers. If small local 3D print shops or even home 3D printers could manufacture almost any item, large centralized plants becomes obsolete and the transportation needs change significantly.


Commercial shipping could be relegated primarily to raw materials. What happens to WalMart or Amazon if everyone has a home 3D printer and all you need is to download a digital file and have some raw materials on hand?

Real estate

In my early GIS career, I spent considerable time doing ring studies, trade area analysis and targeted marketing. The reduced need for retail stores and corresponding warehouses could turn that process on its head. Couple this kind of manufacturing with other technology, such as video conferencing and robotic medicine, and location favoring city centers is reduced. This would certainly impact real estate values as location factors evolve away from crowded centers.

Energy, environment and resources

A very positive impact could be on the environment. Reduced transportation requirements will cut traffic and corresponding pollution. The more efficient use of raw materials and better direct recycling of many plastics is another positive factor. I’m not sure how the energy equation would work with mass production vs. individual replication and reduced transportation but my gut feeling is that it would be a net positive result.

Military and emergency responders

The U.S. Navy is already experimenting with 3D printers to reduce the number of repair parts that are stored on ships or in the supply chain. I personally experienced the early benefits of shipboard digital technology by reducing huge libraries of paper repair manuals. An average three-foot stack of international paper navigation charts on each ship recently went digital. First responders could replicate emergency equipment repair parts on demand at NIMS Area Command Centers providing logistics support for major incidents.


Internationally, many large overseas manufacturing facilities could become obsolete. U.S. companies are bringing some operations back home. The geopolitical consequences could be significant. This even applies to the manufacture of clothing. Imagine having clothing that fits perfectly, printed on demand at a neighborhood 3D print store. A positive effect could be that less developed countries may have access to goods that currently are not affordable.

Unknown unknowns

Although 3D printing has made great strides in five years, it’s still far from being competitive with traditional mass production. Speed, object size and mixed materials/media are still an issue. There are many naysayers on 3D printing sites. Many believe that the technology is too slow and limited along with a myriad of other problems. I have no doubt that many if not all these issues will be resolved or augmented with other technologies. We are also viewing the technology in terms of our current knowledge and perspective. My first experience with digital mapping was a 286 PC driving a xy pen plotter that mimicked the job done by draftsmen. At the time, no one imagined that HP could spray micro drops of ink on paper to rapidly produce billboard-sized plots with color imagery as we do today.

Roland Pen Plotter

I believe we are in for a wild ride as the technology evolves. The above speculations are just my preliminary thoughts. I’ll bet that many of you have additional observations and speculations. I’d like to hear from you in the comments section. To learn more, you may want to attend a key 3D Printing conference in New Your April 2-4.

This article is tagged with and posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Mapping

About the Author: Art Kalinski

A career Naval Officer, Art Kalinski established the Navy’s first geographic information system (GIS) in the mid-1980s. Completing a post-graduate degree in GIS at the University of North Carolina, he was the Atlanta Regional Commission GIS Manager from 1993 to 2007. He pioneered the use of oblique imagery for public safety and participated in numerous disaster-response actions including GIS/imagery support of the National Guard during Hurricane Katrina; the Urban Area Security Initiative; a NIMS-based field exercise in Atlanta; and a fully manned hardware-equipped joint disaster response exercise in New York City. Kalinski retired early from ARC to join Pictometry International to direct military projects using oblique imagery, which led to him joining SPGlobal Inc. He has written articles for numerous geospatial publications, and authors a monthly column for the GeoIntelligence Insider e-newsletter aimed at federal GIS users.

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