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Whether in power plant construction, aerospace, medical technology or the automotive industry, additive manufacturing methods are bringing about the next industrial revolution, according to US economist Jeremy Rifkin. German researchers do not go quite so far. Math professor Hartmut Schwandt, Director of the 3-D Laboratory at TU Berlin prefers to talk in Handelsblatt about an "evolution" . We are still far from being able to make anything we want from any material, he says. Compared with industrial mass production, 3-D printing is still slow and expensive.

More creativity needed

The Association of German Engineers (VDI), however, sees genuine opportunities for new business models in a recent status report . With additive manufacturing, so goes the report, components can be made only when they are needed – and individually. Batch sizes of one are possible, and parts can be manufactured directly onsite. This reduces transport and service costs. It is also possible for the first time to manufacture products without any heavy machinery at all, which is perfect for startups. However, this would require that "the additive process enter into the awareness of builders and production planners as an option," points out VDI.

"Engineers need to rethink everything," stresses Ursus Krüger, Research Director at Siemens, in an interview with Die Welt newspaper. More creativity is needed among designers and students, because there are truly no more limits when it comes to designing components with software and printers. Companies around the world are testing the possibilities. Airbus wants to manufacture components for series aircraft additively, while General Electric is printing injector nozzles for a new generation of powertrains. German automation specialist Festo is already manufacturing a bionic handling assistant (a gripper that can gently and securely lift and place objects) completely via 3-D printing. Southwest-Germany-based Arburg has developed their own method for the additive manufacturing of plastic components. The Freeformer builds up fully functional individual components from the tiniest droplets of plastic, all without a mold and directly from 3-D CAD files.

3-D printing comparable to microwave ovens

Neal Gershenfeld of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) compares 3-D printing with the rise of the microwave oven in the 1950s: A microwave is good for some things, but did not end up replacing the rest of the kitchen. What is more important to him is that "data can be turned into things." The future above all will see designs being sent around the globe digitally, for products to be printed on location.

We are still at the very start of this change. However, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates the market potential of additive technology at USD 550 billion by 2025. No wonder Obama and his peers want to lose no time promoting this change.

Join with colleagues and creative thinkers to explore the opportunities and limits of additive manufacturing at HANNOVER MESSE at the Digital Factory .