One of the new technology trends which I’m very excited about is 3D printing. 3D printing is the process of making of a three-dimensional solid object of any shape from a digital model, using an additive process where successive layers of material are added in different shapes (see Fig. 1 and 2 below).
To be honest, this process still sounds a bit futuristic and abstract to me, but I do understand the main difference with traditional machining techniques which mostly rely on the removal of material through cutting or drilling (subtractive process).
I found this explanation of 3D printing on wikipedia quite helpful:
“Additive manufacturing takes virtual blueprints from computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software and “slices” them into digital cross-sections for the machine to successively use as a guideline for printing. Depending on the machine used, material or a binding material is deposited on the build bed or platform until material/binder layering is complete and the final 3D model has been “printed.”
These are some examples of what 3D printing can do which caught my attention:
- Create pharmaceutical drugs – The use of 3D printing to enable patients to print out their prescriptions could potentially transform the pharmaceutical industry. A team at Glasgow University have developed a process to synthesise chemicals through 3D printing. This team has come up with a very complex but innovative solution: building a multi-layered “cake” of reactive chemicals, reversing the order in which these layers might usually be laid down. As soon as this cake finishes printing, the molecules from the top of the layering work their way through the other layers to kick off the desired chemical reaction.
- Print your own swimwear – 3D printing applications such as the creation of your own bikini (see Fig. 3 below) could possibly have an impact on the fashion industry. Thousands of circular plates, connected by minuscule springs, are printed in 3D using Nylon 12, a solid but flexible polymer. I don’t wear bikinis myself but I nevertheless did find myself wondering whether such a ‘printed bikini’ would actually be comfortable to wear …
- Print food – When you think that you’ve heard it all when it comes to pretty wacky applications of 3D printing, think again! Researchers at Cornell University (see Fig. 4 below) and at NASA have created prototypes around the idea of printing “digital recipes” whereby 3D printers will combine powders to produce food. 3D printing already works quite successfully when it comes to making chocolate, so who knows what’s next?
Main learning point: Even though some of the current examples of 3D printing may seem a bit out there, the process of adding a number materials to create products in a very cost-effective way is hugely exciting. Most of today’s 3D printing applications are still very much at a prototyping stage but think for a second about the ability to create medication or food through your 3D printer …
Fig. 1 – A visual representation of a sample 3D printing process (taken from http://www.nbr.co.nz/article/neville-newcomb-launches-3d-printing-service)
Fig. 2 – A diagram of a sample 3D printing process (taken from http://www.rpchemie.ru/en/info2.html)
Fig. 3 – Intro video to printing a bikini by Continuum Fashion
Fig. 4 – Cornell University’s 3D food printer (by CNN Money)
Related links for further learning: