In the past few years we've heard much about "3D printing" and the many uses of this emerging technology. But how does 3D printing work? How is it different from other manufacturing processes? And what else can the technology be used for?
Picture by Wikimedia Commons
Additive vs subtractive manufacturing
Making things usually involves a subtractive process: you start with a block of material — aluminium for instance — which you then machine (that is, remove material) until you get the shape and size you're after.
But 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, does the process in reverse. Instead of removing material, the "printer" dispenses it. The technology gradually deposits the material via a controlled nozzle, layer by layer, building up to a fully formed product.
The material used can either be plastic (usually ABS), or a metal. The process is typically based on a computer-designed model of the object or machine part in question, and can produce relatively complex shapes (see video below).
An expanding market
At first, the process was used for small-scale parts manufacturing and to produce prototypes but the process has since expanded to larger parts and the process is becoming more mainstream.
Today, the market for 3D printers is worth about $US1.7 billion with a predicted growth to $US3.7 billion by 2015.
The price tag for individual printers can vary greatly — depending on the size and "printing" quality you're after. For instance, the MakerBot Replicator 2 (see video below) retails at around $US2200 — a pretty hefty price tag for mass retail. A cheaper system, The Cube, made by 3D Systems, is selling for $US1299.
Many industries, many uses
3D printing has many uses and can be found across a range of industries.
Health and medicine
3D printing has the potential to truly transform fields such as health care. In recent years, the technology has been used to make medical parts including custom hearing aids and braces.
The method has also been used to reproduce body parts, including ears, hips and even organs, in exact proportions to fit the patient. This may potentially eliminate the need for organ donors and provide doctors with on-demand human tissue.
In a world's first, in Feburary 2012, surgeons successfully implanted an entire titanium jaw, made with 3D printing, in an elderly woman.
Surgeon Anthony Atala gave a great TED talk last year on how 3D printing may be used to make a human kidney (see video below).
A Dutch architecture firm designed the "KamerMaker" a 3D printer which is able to print objects large enough to construct a room (see video below). The KamerMaker is capable of printing objects as large as 2m x 2m x 3.4m — large enough for industrial structures.
The implications of 3D printing in architecture are endless: architects could use the technology to design and print objects on-site as needed. The technology could also be used to print out structures that can be used for temporary shelters.
In disaster-stricken zones, portable 3D printers could allow faster setup and more adequate shelter, as design and alterations can be made on-site.
In his documentary "The Man Who Prints Houses" Italian engineer Enrico Dini tells the tale of trying to make the world's largest 3D printer (the "D-shape").
Several aerospace companies have shown an interested in 3D printing. In September 2012, Airbus announced it was partnering with South-African based company Aerosud to make a large 3D printer that will use powdered titanium to make aircraft components.
Ultimately, Airbus would like to make a 3D printer that is large enough to make planes from the ground up — a hangar-size printer as large as 80m x 80m.
Also in September Ferra Engineering landed a A$200 million contract with Lockheed Martin to make titanium parts for the F-35 joint strike fighter using 3D printing. It's a world first and great news for the Australian manufacturing sector.
Made In Space is a US company experimenting with zero-gravity 3D printing. The process could potentially allow astronauts to print objects as required in space, saving valuable weight at launch.
NASA has been looking at 3D printing for some time now, and considering the technology for long missions where astronauts could create their own equipment during the trip.
Earlier this year, Swinburne University developed a 3D printer the size of a small room, allowing for large parts to be made. The 3D printer allows users to print objects using a number of materials including steel, cobalt and chromium.
3D printing also reduces the time and costs involved in manufacturing. Material scrap rate is virtually nullified and parts are made in a single build, which reduces the need for excessive tooling and machining. Rapid prototyping with such efficiency would allow more effective design experimentation and verification.
3D printing is a great tool to teach students about engineering and design. A number of universities around Australia — including Swinburne, University of Melbourne and ANU — have purchased 3D printers and have included their use in various curricula.
It's a great way to introduce principles around design, manufacturing, sustainability and 3D modelling to students early on. It's also a lot more fun for students to learn by doing (assuming they get to make their own parts) than through theory.
3D printing can also be a product in and of itself. The website Shapeways allows customers to order objects made of plastic, glass, metal, and other materials, then prints the objects and mails them off. Shapeways is also planning to open a 3D printing factory in the US where people can see how these objects get made.
3D printing may also open the door to a new marketplace for 3D designs — assuming you have a 3D printer at home. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has said that the future of online retail will be shaped by 3D printing.
And many others
Other applications include reconstructing fossils, replicating ancient artefacts, and reconstructing heavily damaged evidence acquired from crime scene investigations.
Researchers have also investigated customised 3D-printed running shoes, which would fit you perfectly and would be designed to meet your needs.
And, rather more bizarrely, US-based start-up Modern Meadow is currently working on producing printed edible meat. How about a 3D-printed steak (made as you wish) for your next BBQ?
As wonderful as 3D printing is, the technology and its uses have raised a number of legal and ethical concerns.
Experts point out the copyright infringements that could result if an original 3D CAD model is based on scanning a real 3D object — a real object that might have been designed (and copyrighted) by someone else.
As an article in The Economist in September 2012 points out, unless the object is in the public domain, copyright law could well apply. There have already been a number of users who have been caught out using 3D printers to reproduce popular merchandise.
In the US, the production of a partially 3D printed (and fully operational) gun has created much controversy and raised concerns over the potential misuse of the technology.
The project's aim to create a usable open-source blueprint so that individuals can download and print their own gun. As the Guardian reports, 3D printing technology is so new, the legality of the gun publication is still somewhat opaque.
Some commentators have also argued that 3D printing technology could be used to make drugs, both illicit and legal, using a CAD-designed structural model leading to more accurate and (most worryingly) faster production.
As discussed, 3D printing is already being used across a range of industries for myriad different uses. And, in the years to come we're likely to see further applications emerge.
It probably won't be too long before we start to see 3D printers become a regular fixture in homes in the same way ink printers have.
Hamza Bendemra is a Researcher (Engineering) at Australian National University. He does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.