3D printing is seeing somewhat of a renaissance as of late. Manufacturers and researchers are pushing the boundaries in various different directions. The most obvious ones are advancements in materials, the number of extruders or number of axes. These are among the many arms races that are taking place in this burgeoning field.
While these sorts of improvements are crucial to the industry, they are largely extensions of getting more efficient prints, or speeding up the process. While changing the number of axes or adding more extruders improves the print and allows more accurate modeling, it doesn’t necessarily give an end product that can’t be produced with traditional subtractive methods of manufacturing.
For this reason, many critics that still don’t buy the hype around 3D printing. A common criticism is that it doesn’t offer all that much that’s new. Just a cheaper, sometimes faster, often single material-based version of things that other methods can already produce. This perception has slowed down the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing.
This image is also further bolstered by the fact that most FFF printing only ever produces enough traditional items that often place it as competing under the shadow of traditional manufacturing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. However, if 3D printing is to make it on its own it has to offer a unique set of skills alongside the ones it shares with other means of manufacturing.
In this article I want to focus on what only 3D printing has to offer. In essence, it’s a reminder as to what unique innovations this technology is bringing about, as opposed to only the improvements on existing models. There are many, but these are the most exciting ones in my view. It is my hope that we stop seeing 3D printing as not just an extension of a previous technology (i.e. traditional manufacturing) and begin to see it also as its own field with various unique qualities and possibilities.
The best applications of the 3D printing are in creating complex structures that utilize micron levels of detail. The greatest example of this is 4D printing. 4D printing, if you’re not familiar with it, is the production of materials that react to various stimuli. Enabling them to change their physical structure from their original form to a pre-programmed secondary shape.
In a TED talk, Skylar Tibbits, highlight the work being done in this field by the MIT Self-Assembly Lab. Various other researchers have created objects that, when shaken or exposed to heat, can take a pre-decided programmed shape. This is done through very specific programming and nano-scale engineering.
This sorts of items can be incredible time-savers. Imagine furniture you can buy in a flat, easily transportable form, which you could place in front of a heater to make it take shape. Or rather imagine items that assemble themselves into various forms when simply shaken.
These materials are currently only at the level of novelty, but future developments might yield results that can be astonishing. Designs like this highlight versatility in the detail and the materials that 3D printing can use. Future models may be able to use different stimuli to produce items that would be useful in certain environment. Moisture absorbent materials could be helpful in swimming pools or nautical settings.
Post-processing Materials Printing and Nano-Scale Functions
A few weeks ago, I had the unique privilege of checking out the bioscience labs at TU Delft, where they had created a modified 3D printer that could manufacture bio-inks containing bacteria. Originally a standard 3D printer that had been rigged by removing the hot ends, and replacing them with a few extra tubes that connect to a syringe mechanism that extrudes the bio-ink.
What was unique about the machine was that it stored living bacteria in an alginate gel mixture solidified on a calcium chloride surface. When the bacteria gel got extruded onto graphene oxide, it produced pure graphene.
Experiments like this help us realize the potential in materials manufacturing. The researchers had effectively created a machine that harnessed bio-organisms that can produce a very coveted form of carbon structures. The printer extruded material that further modifies other materials.
Highlighting how additive methods can aid in creating materials that are meant to interact with different items. A class of materials that can do more than simply be an object and interact with them
The nano-scale detail provided by many 3D printers, along with consistency in extrusions has allowed many researchers to apply 3D printing to materials that would ordinarily require many specialized devices to process properly.. Nano-tech printing requires a level of detail that many other technologies cannot achieve, and thus labs have found 3D printers to be a regular class of apparatus.
Similarly, there are many in the field of bioprinting using additive manufacturing technologies to recreate living eco-cultures for examination of how microbes react to various materials or environments. Others are demonstrating how blood vessels and living tissue can be used to save lives.
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Supply Chain Disruption
While not a function of 3D printers themselves, the changes they present to the supply chain are of a pertinent nature. 3D printing requires a few core components, generally speaking. You need the filament, the STL files and a printer, in most cases.
This presents opportunities in how we have to approach systems of supply. An stl file can be sent in seconds, which allows everyone to cut out transportation costs. Additionally, companies can cut down on inventory costs by producing on an individual, real-time basis as opposed to in batches. These present professionals with a range of cost-saving options and innovative solutions to age-old problems.
The compactness of AM technologies has prompted various companies to rethink models of delivery as well. Amazon has entire delivery trucks that act as hubs with active printers, empowering them to turn their delivery trucks in factories.
Similarly, companies may not have to get parts made from other countries if they have stl files on hand and a local 3D printer. This in turn, allows a lot of smaller manufacturers to compete with companies that do have the help of foreign plants and manufacturing hubs.