Innovation | Technology

How 3D printing is quietly influencing how we live and work


The printing press changed the world. By automating the printing process and making it easier to mass produce printed paper products - booklets and posters, newspapers and pamphlets – the printing press transformed our relationship with the written word. It aided teaching and fostered literacy. More, it helped create a myriad of industries around the pulp and paper industry.

As an innovation process, printing continues to evolve. The latest evolution – 3D Printing – it would seem is also destined to revolutionize the world. Just ask Simon Ford, Senior Lecturer, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at SFU’s Beedie School of Business.

Ford is an expert and passionate believer in the potential impact of ‘additive manufacturing’ (as insiders refer to 3D printing) and has shared his comprehensive knowledge and research into the technology in “Invited review article: Where and how 3D printing is used in teaching and education” co-authored with Tim Minshall, and “Additive manufacturing and sustainability: an exploratory study of the advantages and challenges”, co-authored with Melanie Despeisse.


So what makes 3D printing so exciting? Here are some key insights and predictions gathered from Ford’s writings:

Far reaching applications: 3D printing is disrupting countless conventional industries with products existing manufacturing technologies simply cannot replicate, spanning medicine, fashion, jewelry, film & television, aerospace, transportation, and education.

The sustainability advantage: An ever-increasing number of companies are looking to reduce their environmental impact and augment their brand with more sustainable manufacturing practices. 3D printing has the potential to provide sustainability advantages, including improved resource efficiency; extended product life achieved through technical approaches such as repair, remanufacture and refurbishment, as well as shorter less complex supply chains focused on localized production.

Easy to prototype, hard to scale: Additive manufacturing is already proving a versatile and affordable tool to help entrepreneurs’ prototype designs before entering the marketplace. The goal is not to replace other production methods in large-scale manufacturing, but to help the scale-up process and complement other production technologies.

Yet to reach its tipping point: For most applications, 3D printing will not replace machining, casting or injection moulding. However, an increasing number of companies are finding ways to incorporate the technology into production. Indeed, leading car manufacturers like Volkswagen, Ford and BMW are already producing 3D printed parts at scale. Although not yet embedded into other industries, it’s shifting.

Education is key to adoption: Embedding 3D printing into education will be critical to driving adoption. Ford observed an increasing use of additive printing techniques in a classroom setting. Although this is typically in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) classes in post-secondary institutions, he expects greater exposure will promote adoption rates.

The market, and technology is maturing: Just as it took the printing press decades to develop and expand its prominence, 3D printing has yet to achieve its full potential. The first 3D printing processes were invented in the 1980's, but new 3D printing technologies and applications continue to emerge as the technology and materials science evolve.

The personal touch: The opportunity for 3D printing may lie less in large scale manufacturing and more with custom, personalized solutions. Many new companies are looking at biomedical applications for 3D printing, where personalization is a key attribute. For example, Vancouver based start-up, FitMyFoot (formerly Wiivv Wearables), develops custom printed shoe insoles, while more adventurous groups, such as Aspect Biosystems, are developing 3D bioprinters to create functional cells and tissues for medical testing.


The advantages of 3D printing are only beginning to be explored. As knowledge of the technology increases, it’s clear that 3D printing has the potential to transform the way in which products are produced and distributed. And as additive manufacturing continues to evolve and the consumer audience adjusts to the innovation, the value of the technology will only continue to expand.

Simon Ford is an Academic Director, Undergraduate Programs and Senior Lecturer, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. Simon teaches BUS 238 Introduction to Entrepreneurship and Innovation and BUS 450 Managing Emerging Opportunities.