3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, refers to the process of producing solid, three-dimensional objects with the help of a digital file. The object is produced with the help of additive processes, in which objects are formed when layer upon layer of material is laid down until the required dimensions are achieved. 3D printing starts with the creation of a virtual design of the object that is to be produced. This could be a CAD file, which in turn is created using a 3D scanner or a 3D modeling application. After a 3D model is created, it is divided into hundreds of horizontal layer with the help of software. The 3D printer then renders the object with the help of these slices.
The benefits of 3D printing are spread across a multitude of industries. From being used to create car parts, fashion accessories and phone cases to being used for artificial organs and medical equipment, 3D printing has come a long way. The first 3D printer was created by Charles Hull in 1984, and little did he know that the technology would evolve to not only help aerospace organizations and manufacturing corporations save large sums of money, but also to save lives.
Applications in Medicine
Perhaps the most important use of 3D printing in medicine is the creation of 3D printed organs. Through this technology, the patient’s own cells can be used to print organs. This ensures that patients do not have to go through long waiting periods to find suitable donors. Earlier, patients used to have hand-made structures implanted into their bodies. 3D printing is a huge step forward.
Apart from organs, progress is now being made by researchers into 3D printing blood vessels. Researchers have also successfully created easily customizable and cheap 3D prosthetic sockets. This has been exceptionally beneficial as traditional prosthetics took a lot of time to be made and were also destructive. Moreover, not everyone could afford them. Printed prosthetics are inexpensive and thus can be used by those with limited resources. Another important application of 3D printing in the field of medicine is the creation of ear cartilage. 3D pictures of the human ear have been used to make ear molds, which then had filled in them a gel that contained bovine cartilage cells floating in collagen. Princeton researchers have also created their own printed ear which can support superhuman hearing. Currently, the US Army is funding the research on synthetic skin to treat soldiers who have been wounded.
Applications in Aerospace industry
The aerospace industry is investing extensively in 3D printing as it is not only time-saving but also cost-effective. The need for consistent improvement and evolution of the vehicles requires that accurate and efficient parts be used to create them even as the vessels decrease in size. 3D printing has majorly benefitted this industry owing to the complex shapes it allows to be created. The technology is especially suitable for short series production. Traditional methods of production lead to a lot of material waste. 3D printed parts are cost-effective as they are created with no material waste since this technology allows the unused material to be recycled. Honeywell, Lockheed and other industry giants are incorporating into their designs 3D printed components and $70 million have been invested by GE Aviation in an Alabama factory for the production of 3D fuel nozzles. A 3D printed part is capable of replacing 20 parts welded together. The durability gets increased and the products are more effective and efficient. This is why NASA recently invested in a 3D printed rocket engine injector that ended up passing a critical hot fire test.
Applications in Architecture
Designers these days are exploring the field of architecture further than ever before by using 3D printers. Architect teams in Amsterdam and London are competing with each other for the construction of the first 3D structure that is habitable. This technology undoubtedly has the capability to revolutionize the creation of buildings. Although the objective of the teams remains the same, the fabrication methods and materials they are investigating are very different from each other.
The process was initiated by Universe Architecture, a Dutch studio that revealed designs of a two-storey house to be printed in concrete. Following this, architects from UK declared plans to create a single-storey structure made of plastic. Although every approach that followed since has been viewed with skepticism as the technology has been used to create only relatively smaller objects till date, architects have faith in the transformative power of 3D printing for the field of architecture. The goal is to print not just buildings, but urban sections in totality. The potential to save labor, transportation costs and time is huge, when compared with traditional methods of construction. Neri Oxman, the founder of Mediated Matter, has been working with his team on replicating the movement of a silkworm building its cocoon to program robotic arms that can print traditional materials.
Applications in Electronics
Similar to other industries, the electronics industry has witnessed an increase in the use of 3D printers owing to their benefits over traditional methods. One of the uses of 3D printing has been to create antennae for mobile devices. Using a printer to create an antenna improves the flexibility of the design, while at the same time reducing the thickness of the device. As the process is driven digitally, the need for plastic resins, plating processes and hard tooling vanishes. It also reduces the time for developing new products. Apart from this, 3D printers have been used to create complex 3D Molded Interconnect Devices as well as heater patterns. Printed circuits help generate heater patterns over materials like PC. This technology is also used to create sensor structures. A host of ink types as well as functionalities are allowed by Aerosol Jet printing. By combining SMDs with printed materials, mechanical structures can be integrated with sensor structures.
Some have predicted that 3D printing is a technology that will end up changing commerce as we know it, because customers would prefer to manufacture their own products instead of buying them from corporations and other sellers. Having effects on waste reduction, energy use, product availability, customization, art, medicine and construction, this technology will bring major changes in the current manufacturing world.