How 3D printing will change travel

From rendering packing unnecessary to making airplanes lighter and more efficient, 3D printing could revolutionise travel – even if, experts warn, it may not be for decades.

Few advances in the manufacturing world have been as ballyhooed as 3D printing. After all, all you need is a 3D printer, the theory goes, and anything – from an edible raspberry to a body part – can be yours for the making.

For travellers, the process seems particularly convenient. Why lug around an entire suitcase of items, for example, when you could simply print out what you need once you’ve arrived at your destination?

That was the thinking of Janne Kyttanen, the Finnish artist who designed the entire outfit, down to shoes and bag – all produced via 3D printer – that was shown in an exhibit called “Lost Luggage” in Rotterdam’s Galerie VIVID this spring. “If you feel like going to Paris, then you just leave and go. You don’t have to go home and think of what you’re going to pack,” he said. “It’s like a futuristic dream world.”

Currently, doing such a futuristic thing would make little economic or practical sense. 3D printers remain costly (the cheapest start at about $500), as do materials, which can cost from $50 to $500 per kilogramme. Typical printers can only print with one material at a time, which severely limits the variety of useful items that can be produced. Uploading (or designing) files can be daunting for the technologically challenged, and the process is not instantaneous. It is still a manufacturing process; printing an item can take hours.

“It’s not as simple as pressing a button and getting a product,” said Phil Reeves, managing director of 3D printing consultancy Econolyst. “It is just another manufacturing technology, that's all. Yes, it’s quite clever, and yes, it’s quite flexible, but it doesn't materialise things out of nowhere.” With traditional manufacturing methods remaining inexpensive, he pointed out, you might as well simply board that flight to Paris without your luggage – and just buy all of your items on the cheap when you arrived.

But where 3D printing of the type Kyttanen envisions could be useful, Reeves said, is with more personalised items. Part of the advantage of 3D printing is the ability to make a variety of individually customised parts at a similar cost to making multiple, identical replicas. For that reason, the healthcare industry has adopted 3D printing particularly quickly, with a January 2014 study by business data provider Visiongain predicting that the industry will spend some $4 billion on the technology by 2018, up from $1.3 billion in 2013.

These healthcare-related applications could one day be a boon for travellers who either have medical conditions or get into an accident overseas. Rather than order a particular orthopaedic or splint from a manufacturer, for example, a hospital could, instead, access a patient’s digital files and print the required item on the spot.

Of course, the technology could also be used for any bespoke item when travelling, not just one in medicine. “Say you were a photographer and had a specific lens adapter, and you broke it and couldn't get it imported. You could get one 3D printed,” said Nick Allen, founder of London-based printing company 3D Print UK. “Whether the company would release the data for you to make that product is another kettle of fish.”

That ability to print files as you need them is exactly the kind of usage Kyttanen and other proponents envision. “I’m not suggesting that people suddenly print shampoo,” Kyttanen said. “But maybe you get your body scanned in an airport, land on the other side – and you have perfectly-fitting shoes waiting there.”

While that remains years, or decades, in the future, 3D printing is already affecting travellers in other, less-obvious ways. The most significant may be noticed by the fewest travellers: many new planes manufactured today use 3D printing for at least some of their components. Airbus, for example, announced in March that its next-generation A350 XWB is using a handful of 3D-printed components. Part of the technology’s draw is that 3D printing can lower manufacturing costs, since for companies like Airbus, it requires fewer tools and prototypes to create a final series of parts. Furthermore, industry experts like Allen noted, traditional manufacturing usually entails either cutting from a solid block or casting from a mould; with 3D printing, it is easier to create hollow or complicated items with less waste. Parts wind up weighing less and requiring fewer raw materials (Airbus found their 3D printed parts weigh 30% to 55% less and use 90% less material than their traditional counterparts), significantly decreasing the energy consumption of the manufacturing process – not to mention making planes themselves lighter and decreasing fuel consumption. Whether those cost savings trickle down to air passengers, however, is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, creative minds like Kyttanen are looking forward to the time when you can, in fact, lose your luggage and print it all out at your destination, right to your specifications. It may be a few years in the future. But it might not be as far off as people think. “It took us only 10 years to wire the entire planet with broadband internet,” Kyttanen said. “It’s inevitable that it’s going to happen.”