Three-dimensional printing - the technology which enables complex components to be built up layer by layer - has been around for two decades. Initially, its primary application was product prototyping. But as technology and quality have improved, costs have plummeted; in 2011, the manufacturing world stands at the dawn of a new era.
Why does it move the game on?
3D printing sidesteps the need for conventional tooling (which can take months) by sending a three-dimensional design directly from the computer to a specialised 'printer' - a laser assisted fabrication machine - which builds it up layer by layer. Wastage is minimised, production lead times are a fraction of their conventional equivalent - and therefore, costs are dramatically reduced. Even more exciting is the ability to produce bespoke designs at minimal extra cost.
This has particular significance to rarefied industries like Formula One, and is increasingly used in medicine. In the years to come, customised implants and other replacement body parts will become the norm, fabricated on the spot by hospital-based 3D printers. Because the process is so flexible, designs that would be prohibitively expensive to make conventionally can be produced to exceptional tolerances.
Because 3D printing involves no cutting or grinding of metal, its potential knows virtually no bounds. Arguably, it's limited only by the ingenuity of the world's industrial and product designers.
Exploiting airflow over surfaces - whether to produce lift in an aircraft or downforce in a racing car - is a complex process which until recently, has been limited by conventional manufacturing techniques. For instance, prewar aircraft designers knew that an elliptical wing was the most efficient blend of lift and low drag, as epitomised by the ultra-fast, ultra-manoeuvrable Supermarine Spitfire. But it was hideously expensive and complex to build; in the last half-century, many designs have gone no further than the drawing-board for this reason.
But with the advent of 3D printing, those designs are being revisited - which could bring about a revolution in the aviation industry. At a time of economic uncertainty and soaring fuel costs, it couldn't be better timed.
And with their historic flight of the world's first printed aircraft, Southampton's researchers are leading the way.