Shaping Our Future: 3D Printing

3D Printer

In this first article of our new series, “Shaping our Future”, we’ll cover 3D printing and its potential impact.  At first glance 3D printing might seem like little more than a novelty, but it has the potential to change the way we create most things in our lives.  The term 3D printing is actually the popular term for the process of additive manufacturing, where three dimensional objects are created by adding or solidifying a substance one layer at a time.  The process resembles printing, which is where the popular term comes from.

Today, most manufacturing involves creating a reference object, making a mold of the reference, then injecting a material into the mold to create the finished object.  There are some significant limitations with this process, like difficulty creating complex shapes because the mold can’t be easily made or freed.  All objects made with a mold will be exactly the same, so each variation needs a different mold.  Also, the larger the object, the larger and more difficult it is to maneuver the mold, resulting in a practical limit to the size of solid objects.

With 3D printing the reference object is created in a computer, then a machine creates a physical object based on the shape of the digital object.  One of the biggest benefits of 3D printing is that it can create extremely complex shapes, which might be impossible to create with a traditional molding process.  Another big benefit is the object created can be completely unique, which means it can be completely customized.  This has led to wide adoption of 3D printing for rapid prototyping, so new designs can be easily tested and modified.

We’re just starting to see some of the benefits of 3D printing, beyond its novelty factor.  Because 3D printing can create complex shapes it’s been used to create parts which are stronger and more efficient.  Researchers have also worked on printing larger object like parts for cars and planes.  Even more extreme, 3D printing has actually been used to create the entire frame for houses.  On the other end, 3D printing has reached nanometer object scale for commercial printers.  At such a small scale it’s perfect for building meta materials and even printing human organs.

There’s still more work needed before 3D printing displaces traditional methods of manufacturing, but it’s improving every year.  Speed is one hurdle 3D printing will need to clear in order to compete with traditional manufacturing, but there are promising technologies being developed to improve speed.  Resolution isn’t much of an issue anymore with 3D printers, and it’s even possible to achieve resolutions of 20 microns on machines as low as $2500.  As far as materials, plastic is still the most common material used by 3D printers, but advancements are being made with other materials like metal, ceramics, resin, water soluble supports, and even carbon fiber and nanotubes.

With all of the innovation around 3D printing it’s clear it will play a big role in the future of manufacturing.  Some people are even calling 3D printing the third industrial revolution.  Industrial or otherwise, 3D printing will be one of the things that shapes our future, sometimes in unexpected ways.  For news about 3D printing 3ders.org is a great reference.

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  • Jason

    I hadn’t thought about the potential for stronger products through complex shapes. That’s exciting, especially since most of the 3D printed objects I’ve seen (with plastic, at least) have been weak and brittle.

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