The Future of 3D Printing

Traditional fabrication methods involve a great deal of effort, expense, and time. Specialists often have to create individualized molds, assemble multiple components, and construct items from multiple pieces. The process can involve many different materials,

Traditional fabrication methods involve a great deal of effort, expense, and time. Specialists often have to create individualized molds, assemble multiple components, and construct items from multiple pieces. The process can involve many different materials, a wide variety of highly trained workers, and several expensive trials before the perfect object is finally created.

Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing remove some of the time and expense from the process of creating new commercial and industrial objects. Instead of utilitizing a factory to create a sample for testing, self-contained printers create items from three-dimensional CAD drawings. These items are printed one layer at a time, permitting more creativity and control over the final shape than any other construction method. Printing is also faster, cutting the creation process down from days or weeks to more hours for most items.

How does 3d-Printing Works?

The basic concept behind all 3D printers is the same. 3D CAD drawings are sliced into layers ranging from approximately 0.09 to 0.25 millimeters thick depending on the machine being used. Each slice represents a single layer of the constructed object. Different printers use different materials and different binding processes, but generally a powder of ceramic, nylon, or even metal is used as the base material and fused together into the pattern for the layer currently being created. After the completion of a layer, the machine moves on to the next layer until it is completed.

The State of 3D Printing Today

3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping have become more and more prominent in the past few years as new materials and processes have expanded the capabilities and lowered the cost to the point where small businesses and even individual consumers can now afford to create their own 3D objects. There’s even an open source 3D printer designed by Carnegie Mellon that can be built at home for only $2,400.

3D Printing is moving from a prototyping system to a manufacturing system in some industries. For example, the UK-based Atkins Project is investigating the use of 3D printers to manufacture lightweight, aerodynamic parts for aircraft that cannot be produced through more conventional methods. This manufacturing method also has the advantage of efficient use of materials; scraps of titanium and other expensive materials that would otherwise be unusable with traditional manufacturing methods can be reused with 3D Printing.

Companies are offering specialized custom printing services aimed at niche users. For example, 3D Outlook Corporation offers 3-dimensional topographical maps aimed at hikers, real estate moguls, resorts, and others. Several new companies print models of avatars designed for various online games and virtual worlds. Although no longer available, there was even a service that let kids design and print their own superhero figures.

The Future of 3D Printing

3D printing is moving in several directions at this time and all indications are that it will continue to expand in many areas in the future. Some of the most promising areas include medical applications, custom parts replacement, and customized consumer products. As materials improve and costs go down, other applications we can barely imagine today will become possible.

Perhaps the greatest area of potential growth for 3D printing is in the medical field. As mentioned above, researchers are just starting to experiment with the idea of creating artificial bones with 3D printers, but the process could potentially be used for so much more. Some companies are investigating the possibility of printing organic materials; these materials could be used in a much wider array of surgeries and potentially replace a much larger selection of defective human parts. Expect expansion of training techniques based on 3D printed models of complex human systems, a greater effort to more explicitly explain surgeries or the workings of the human body to patients as detailed replicas of body parts to become more common, and more precise surgical and diagnostic equipment based on designs that can be printed but not manufactured using traditional means.

There is certainly a market for customized keepsakes and 3D printing can take that industry to new heights. There may come a time when choosing new cutlery doesn’t involve selecting a pattern at the store but designing it on your computer and printing out the resulting pieces. One day we may dial up just the right level of edge for a child starting to use sharp knives, build customized ergonomic handles that fit each individual’s hands perfectly (perhaps color coded for easy identification), or shape spoon bowls to generate the perfect mouthful every time.

Another area of growth in the 3D printing arena is replacement parts production. Need a new screw for your laptop? A new gear for your heirloom grandfather clock? A new piston for your car? Instead of trying to track down the part, pay for shipping, and waiting weeks for its arrival, you’ll just be able to print it out and go. Mechanics will keep specs for every part of every car ever sold in a database and print out whatever they need immediately with no difficulty. While it would save time and money for any part, it’s a particular boon for restoration jobs of all kinds where the original parts are extremely difficult to find or may not even exist anymore.


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