Another societally-beneficial, common-sensical, business case justified use of 3D printing came to our attention this week: scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Material and Beam Technology IWS in Dresden have improved upon the traditional manufacture of thermoelectric generators (TEGs) used in some power station cooling towers to capture residual energy from the main generation process. Those columns of steam that come rushing upward from cooling towers represent up to 60% of generated energy that traditional power plants don’t capture from the core process. The use of specialized TEGs creates the ability to captures some of that waste and process it into additional MWs of usable energy.
What we love about this example is simple: it demonstrates why 3D printing is not only an alternative solution to traditional production, but a better one. Current manufacturing processes use toxic components containing lead (among other things) and are “largely produced by hand.” The small-scale measurements of the pieces to be produced are precise and painstaking to achieve through current production methods. 3D printing offers the ability to use human- and environmentally-friendly materials, efficient manufacture, and lower cost.
Yet 3D printing is about much more than cheap customization, unprecedented support for complex internal geometry, and better material usage. These advantages alone will transform and enable many industries, but something bigger is at play: the more compelling potential of this technology is to leverage it towards the creation of items that would add value if only feasible production could be established…tens of thousands of simple innovations that would improve the environment, the economy, and human health and happiness if only they were easier to create and test. The former is improvement, but the latter is true innovation.