Equipment and Applications Take Off for 3D Printing

“In 40 years, we’ll have a hard time explaining to our grandchildren how we lived without one.” That is what Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University, told Lauren Wolfe at Chemical & Engineering News. He was talking about 3D printers.

3D Printers, also known as additive manufacturers, are robotic machines (shown in the video) that use powders, liquids, and pastes to build solid objects one layer at a time. So far, they have been mostly used to create custom objects with complex geometries, such as jewelry or lampshades.

Wolfe writes that about 70% of the 3D printing market’s more than $1 billion in sales currently comes from printed prototypes or model parts made of substances such as plastics. For example, Plastics & Rubber Weekly reports that the technology has gone Hollywood as it was used to develop prototypes for the boxing robots used in the recent sci-fi movie Reel Steel.

3D printing machines started out with polymer liquids and powders in the mid-1980s and ceramics in the 1990s. Now, as the machines are becoming more refined, many still use only polymers, but other machines can handle different materials. And the applications for creating intricate shapes are getting even more creative. Industrial and academic researchers are printing just about everything from airplane parts to gourmet dinners to artificial heart valves.

David Vink provides details in Plastics News of the 3D printing technologies from the Euromold conference in Frankfurt this week. The new machines, presented by seven companies, expand previous printing capabilities with regard to size, color, material, and speed.

Beyond plastic and metal fabrication, Wolfe describes how applications for 3D printing are under development for the medical industry, including artificial bone grafts for dental implants. However, she writes:

Bioprinted parts don’t necessarily have to be structural implants made of hard, inelastic materials like artificial bone, though. Some engineers are attempting to print more elastic tissue implants such as replacement blood vessels and heart valves.

Wolfe also wrote in her article and posted videos in an accompanying blog post about how folks are also experimenting with 3D printing at home with Nutella and Cheez Whiz, and in a culinary institute with more gourmet delights. She writes that the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University shared the blueprints for a printing machine online in 2007 as part of the open-source Fab@home project. Lipson told her that the website lists the parts for a 3D printer and gives directions on how to put them together at a cost of about $1,200.

Will the stomach dictate the at-home market for 3D printing? Wolfe writes:

‘Food might be the killer app’ to propel the personal manufacturing revolution forward, Cornell’s Lipson says. In the personal computing revolution, the first application that drove the market was gaming. Food printing might just be the thing to catch people’s attention so that they demand faster, cheaper, higher resolution 3-D printers at home, he says.

Whatever the driver, it may be available en masse soon. Cathy Lewis, vice president of global marketing at 3D Systems, told Vink that her company is committed to democratizing access to affordable 3D content-to-print for the benefit of professionals and consumers alike.

Source: “Euromold features advances in 3D printing,” Plastics News, 11/16/11
Source: “Real Steel? – Real Plastic more like,” Plastics & Rubber Weekly, 11/14/11
Source: “Personal Manufacturing,” Chemical & Engineering News, 11/14/11
Source: “A 3-D Printer in Every Kitchen,”, 11/15/11
Source: “3D Printing from 3D Systems,” YouTube

Rachel Petkewich is a freelance science writer and editor. She has worked as a research scientist in the chemical industry and spent eight years as a staff writer and editor at various science journals and magazines, including Chemical & Engineering News.