3D Printing or additive manufacturing is sometimes believed to be larger than the Internet and we are just beginning to see its true potential. The technology first became visible in the late 1980’s, at which time it was called Rapid Prototyping (RP). The very first patent application for RP technology was filed by Dr. Kodama, in Japan, in May 1980 but the full patent specification was not filed before the one year deadline after the application. In 1986, the first patent US4575330 A for stereolithography apparatus (SLA) was issued to Charles Hull, co-founder of 3D Systems Corporation. Today, market predictions suggest that by 2018 nearly 50% of manufacturers in consumer products, heavy industry and life sciences will use 3D printing to produce parts for items they consume, sell or service. The 3D printing industry is expected to grow by more than 31% annually, generating $21 billion worldwide by 2020. By 2025, total revenue in the space is estimated to rise above $50 billion.
3D printing has today surpassed industrial prototyping and manufacturing as this technology has also become accessible to small companies and even individuals. From costing a whopping $20,000 in the early 2000s, 3D printers can now be purchased at less than one-tenth the price for about $1000. This drop in prices can be attributed to its adoption by smaller enterprises too, from the earlier market that only comprised multi-national corporations.
3D printers for astronauts
Space travelers are one of the key beneficiaries of 3D printing. Storing a large number of spare parts in a space station is difficult, and sending replacements miles away from Earth is not feasible. 3D printing has solved this. Take for instance the an International Space Station where a 3D printer has been installed. When a component malfunctions or breaks, engineers from earth send up a design and astronauts print it out!
Take for instance the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) – an expandable room launched at the space station to protect astronauts from micrometeoroids and space debris. Astronauts aboard the space station leveraged the onboard 3D printer to create a radiation shield to cover one of the Radiation Environment Monitors (REMs) inside the BEAM to find out how well the space-made shield blocked radiation as compared to the unshielded sensor.
3D printers for fashion & food
3D printing has replaced traditional steps such as fabrication, mould-making, casting, electroplating etc. Accessories for fashion, including shoes, head-pieces, hats and bags are also going the 3D printing way. In fact, you can now buy Batman suits that are 3D printed! Food is an emerging application that has raised the bar for public excitement. 3D printing of “meat” at the cellular protein level is one of the early experiments being conducted.
The adaptation of 3D printing in the medical sector has a huge potential for growth. The technology is used to manufacture stock items, such as hip and knee implants and patient-specific products such as hearing aids, orthotic insoles for shoes, and personalized prosthetics for patients suffering from diseases such as osteoarthritis, osteoporosis and cancer. When preparing for an operation, medical professionals can print plastic anatomical models of a patient to help them perform a more accurate surgery.
3D printing tries to merge humans and machines!
3D printing has gone beyond mere medical products or instruments. Skin is naturally comprised of layers which makes it a perfect candidate for 3D printed reconstruction. A new 3D printed “Bionic Skin” is a stretchable, electronic fabric, which would allow robots to gain tactile sensation.
University of Minnesota recently printed Bionic Skin in 3D. The team used silicone as a base for the skin, with silver particles for conducting electricity. A coiled sensor was printed in the center, with electrodes on either side to form a conductive ink. This was further wrapped in more silicon layers with one temporary layer printed to hold everything together. This patch of bionic skin was 4-millimeters wide and was printed in a matter of minutes, with stretchability of up to three times its original size. Some research studies predict that such bionic skin can help robots “feel” and respond to external stimuli.
The end goal of medical 3D printing is to create organs for human patients! A new form of additive manufacturing, 4D printed objects that react to certain triggers is still confined to research labs. By adding the right cells into a polymer or gel, scientists can print 3D products capable of functioning independently – in other words, they can create living organisms!!
To this effect, 3D printing is set to change the way we manufacture everything in the near future.
(Featured image is only for representational purpose and has been sourced from https://pixabay.com/p-1571851/?no_redirect)