This is a guest post by Steve Erickson.
Right now, you probably shop online with a quick Google search or a visit to a trusted online retailer, a credit card payment, and a download. Then you hit print, and your receipt comes out of your printer.
What if, when you hit “print,” whatever you just bought came out of your printer? This may seem like a science fiction idea, but we’re closer than you think. You must admit, 3-D printing is a very intriguing concept.
The mass market may be in 3-D printing’s future, as some have speculated. Open-source 3-D printing can easily offset capital costs, and consumers can avoid costs associated with purchasing common household objects with one major investment (in a 3-D printer). Consumers are already trading designs and selling 3-D-manufacturered objects, as seen at websites like Shapeways.
Today 3-D printing technology is used for prototyping and distributed manufacturing. There are 3-D printing applications in a wide range of industries. These include architecture, construction, industrial design, automotive, aerospace, military, engineering, civil engineering, dental and medical fields, biotech, fashion, footwear, jewelry, eyewear, education, geographic information systems, and even food.
Those are all industries that utilize 3-D printing one way or another. We’ll focus on just five.
Architects benefit from 3-D printing for rapid visualization of their architectural drawings and blueprints. Prototyping is popular in most industries that are beginning to utilize 3-D printing technologies.
3-D printers in architecture and construction use a variety of materials. The biggest machines work by mixing sand, or another aggregate material with a binding agent. Other 3-D-printing may rely on a large rock — such as sandstone — being precisely carved into a building. More commonly prototypes are produced with plastic.
Teams of architects in London and Amsterdam are competing to produce the first full-scale, habitable 3-D house. Different materials and fabrications are being investigated, as are different approaches. Architects have already printed an entire room. This combines construction, architecture, and 3-D printing to achieve quite a feat.
3-D printing in industrial design saves a lot of time in the design process. Engineers can produce the prototypes themselves. The availability of prototypes on-demand via 3-D printing creates a testing process that would otherwise be drawn-out, difficult, and time-consuming.
Industrial design 3-D printing typically utilizes plastic as a medium. Specifically, 3-D printers work with thermoplastics, which become pliable and moldable above a specific temperature but return to a solid state upon cooling. Industrial design 3-D printing may also take place on photopolymers, a polymer that changes its properties when exposed to light. Photopolymers are soft and light-sensitive, and will undergo a selective exposure, development, and curing process.
The automotive industry uses 3-D printing to create durable concept models, prototypes, and low-volume, end-use parts in-house. This allows designers and engineers to test and optimize in a more efficient and thorough manner. The automotive industry, like industrial design, uses thermoplastics and photopolymers for prototypes in 3-D printing. This lowers material costs and uses fewer resources in development and testing, as seen in electric vehicle design.
Automotive engineers can create any end-use products or parts that require rubberlike or clear materials with a smooth finish right out of the printer. For example, covers for headlights or taillights can be created onsite. Some independent engineers have even created their own after-market parts for customization.
In the dental industry, Align Technology has created probably the most popular 3-D-printed product, their Invisalign® braces. Based on dental impressions, X-rays and photographs, Align Technology creates 3-D-printed, plastic aligners to realign the teeth of a dental patient. Dentists can utilize the same material that already makes up fillings for 3-D printing, as well, for temporary crowns, permanent crowns, or veneers.
Medical industry innovations include printing an electronic smart-pump to treat heart disease, printing miniature organs for study and testing, or even printing human tissues. In this fascinating method, doctors and scientists are working to use actual living human cells to replicate body parts that the body will accept.
The 3-D printing revolution has reached as far as fashion and footwear. While 3-D printing is used in some capacity as prototypes, there are also download-and-print, wearable options. For example, one designer has created a range of women’s shoes that can be downloaded, printed out, and worn for free. This may be impractical for the masses right now but the cost of new technology tends to drop pretty quickly with time.
Some designers utilize 3-D printing to work with their clothing design in a 3-D space before it is actually produced. For wearable clothing, a 3-D-printed fabric actually exists. The patterns and designs are printed directly on to the fabric, allowing designers to create clothes that can be tailored to anyone’s body size and proportions.
3-D printing technology has a lot of exciting applications as well as mass-market potential. The rapidly changing reality is exciting enough to evoke sci-fi-like scenarios. It will probably involve a complete revolution of the retail market: think “The Jetsons.” While it may be a while until you can download your dinner and office supplies at the same time, the current utilization of 3-D printing in these industries is still something to get excited about.
About the author:
Steve Erickson, Vice President, Sales & Engineering, brings more than 30 years of experience in the plastic injection molding industry to First American Plastic Molding Enterprise and Quad, Inc., both in South Beloit, IL. First American Plastic Molding Enterprise is a custom plastic injection molding manufacturer and assembler for the automotive, food, medical, and industrial markets.
Image by devopstom.