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Surge in 3D printing industry may revolutionize manufacturing
Described by The Economist as the “third industrial revolution,” 3D printing has been touted as the next big transformation in the
3D printing is being used to create a diverse range of products, from plastic figurines and jewelry to machine parts, kitchen appliances and tools. In the science industry, 3D printing is utilized to create bone grafts and replacement organs and print objects needed for space missions out of material that could be found on the moon. Foster & Partners, a group affiliated with the European Space Agency, reported on Jan. 31 that they had designed a 3D printer that could potentially use lunar materials to print components in a possible habitable moon base.
3D printing begins with a computer file. The file is a 3D mock-up of the object being printed, most often created with computer-aided design. The design is then sent to the 3D printer and manufactured depending on the type of printer it is.
3D printing was first introduced in 1986, according to Harris Kyriakou, a researcher and student at the Stevens Institute of Technology who studies 3D printing communities. He said the technology, developed by 3D Systems, was used to create design prototypes.
When 3D printers were introduced, they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, preventing them from becoming commonplace. But in the past few years innovation has led to a surge of printers, ranging from $500 to $2,100, creating a niche 3D printing community that thrives online.
Sites like Thingiverse.com, a social community for people interested in 3D printing, provide a platform for designers to upload and share their designs and products. The website RepRap.org provides designs for 3D printer parts, making it possible to print a 3D printer, dramatically lowering the cost.
“RepRap essentially started 3D printing as a lower-end thing,” said Neil Underwood, an administrator at RepRap. 3D printers use different methods to fabricate designs. One, called Selective Laser Sintering, operates by directing a laser at a thin layer of powdered plastic, metal or other materials. The laser hardens the material
layer by layer and follows an uploaded CAD file to create the product.
This type of 3D printing has implications for customizing the health and science industry, said Susmita Bose, a professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State University. Bose was involved in a project where researchers used a ceramic material to 3D print bone grafts for small-scale bone defects in humans.
“We make the synthetic bone graft so it can dissolve in the body as the bone tissue grows over the bone graft,” she said. “You can use metal for bigger load-bearing structures such as a hip implant.”
Amit Bandyopadhyay, another professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Washington State who has studied 3D printing, said the innovation can
“3D printing can offer devices that can be specifically designed and manufactured for specific patients,” he said.
A technique popular with home printers uses nozzles to squeeze out a plastic or wax in layers.
Patrick Lichty, assistant professor in Columbia’s Interactive Arts & Media Department, owns a 3D printer called the Replicator 2 that uses this technique. He uses 3D printing as both an art form and to create functional parts for his engineering projects. Recently, he printed a case to fit the exact specifications of a small computer he constructed. He said he believes 3D printing could revolutionize how the process of manufacturing is carried out.
“I think this is really game changing,” he said. “[3D printers] are going to create radical amounts of change in the manufacturing industry.”
3D printing allows customization to become easier and less expensive, said Adam B. Levine, a 3D printing enthusiast who runs the website MindtoMatter.org. Levine said his interest in the technique stems from his experience in the packaging industry.
“I did a lot of custom stuff, and to do anything custom in packaging requires quantities in the range of 100,000 pieces to 500,000,” he said. “The reduction of the barrier of entry to do just about anything creative in manufacturing drops substantially [when using 3D printing].”
The popularization of 3D printing in both the health industry and manufacturing industry is only a few years down the line, according to Bose.
“It is exciting when we can not only address the scientific challenges but also the engineering needs,” Bose said. “This is what 3D printing does.”