Edward Burtynsky is an internationally renowned photographer and a co-founder of Think2Thing, a Toronto-based 3-D prototyping, modelling and design atelier.
The quest for the fabled Northwest Passage inspired nautical explorers of the 19th century, such as John Franklin, to look globally for innovative new paths for trade and economic growth. Similarly, a new wave of innovators are seeking to break ground in the areas of design and production and have found previously unimaginable opportunities through 3-D printing, allowing them to create anywhere and any time. How fitting that these new technologies have allowed us to link innovators across the centuries through perfectly replicating the bell of the recently recovered HMS Erebus, one of the Franklin Expedition's two ships.
Three-dimensional technology itself is a wonder, producing digital scans of objects one layer at a time through "additive manufacturing." It has the potential to transform virtually every economic sector – including automotive, aerospace, biomedical, information and communications technology, architecture, culture and design – and can ultimately change what we make, how we make it and where it is made. Industry leaders are looking into how it can and should be harnessed by Canadian businesses seeking to compete in the ever-changing global marketplace.
Innovation in the 3-D printing space relies on the best in art, engineering and design – all strengths in ample evidence here in Canada. As Canadian manufacturing faces an uncertain future in a world of increasingly globalized and intensely competitive supply chains, 3-D printing has the potential to leverage our country's competitive advantages. When combining our nation's talent pool with progressive innovation ecosystems, a skilled manufacturing work force, and great university researchers – such as those from Ryerson's Advanced Manufacturing, Design and 3D Printing Lab – Canada can be at the forefront of this 3-D printing revolution.
As a fine art photographer, I may be an odd champion of the virtues and potential of 3-D printing. But in many respects, 3-D printing is essentially Photography 3.0. From film to digital to three-dimensional form, photography's capacity to capture moments, objects and places has expanded exponentially, opening up exciting new vistas for the future of this genre.
Yet, 3-D printing's potential goes far beyond simply moving photography to the next level. According to a 2013 study by Deloitte, 3-D printing is projected to have a greater impact on the world over the next 20 years than all of the innovations of the industrial revolution combined. Already, 3-D printing is being used by industrial designers and artists to produce visualizations and prototypes hitherto unimaginable. In manufacturing, Boeing has adopted 3-D printers for more than 200 parts on 10 different types of aircraft. NASA has tested 3-D printers in space to print tools and spare parts on the International Space Station. In France, a violinist has produced the "3Dvarius," the first fully playable 3-D-printed violin.
3-D technology is also enabling businesses to shift away from traditional practices, such as mass production to manufacturing on demand. Given the growing consensus that our country's economy needs to become less reliant on sectors that are at the mercy of global demand cycles, it could well be that 3-D printing technology will become Canada's 21st-century version of the Northwest Passage – opening new opportunities worldwide.
However, a world-class 3-D printing and imaging "cluster" in Canada will not happen without a strategy, capital and resources to support entrepreneurship, research and adoption in this nascent field. With a new Liberal majority government expressing interest in making an investment toward innovation to allow traditional Canadian industries to become more competitive and successful, we need to ensure that investment in 3-D technology adoption is a part of the Canadian innovation agenda.
Innovation in 3-D printing is already a high priority for many of our trading partners, and 3-D strategies are being developed around the world to accelerate it in countries such as Britain, Germany, China and the United States. Governments at all levels in Canada as well as the business and academic communities need to understand the enormous impact that this new technology will have on the future of design and manufacturing, and work together to ensure that Canada is a leading 3-D innovator.
It is important to remember that as fascinating as new technologies such as 3-D printing are, if they are not actually used, there is no innovation. Our national strategy must recognize that innovation is not just about creating technologies, products and services, but also about promoting their adoption to drive innovation, productivity and growth. If anything, the need to innovate is even more pronounced today. As so-called "disruptive innovations" sweep across the competitive landscape, separating winners from losers, the question becomes whether Canada will be a disrupting early adoptor or a disrupted late follower.
Meanwhile, the 3-D replica of the Erebus bell, on display since last January at the Royal Ontario Museum, is a powerful reminder of the spirit of innovation and adventure that inspired Sir John Franklin and his men. Let it ring again to usher in a new age of Canadian design and manufacturing innovation.