3D printing is a technique also known as additive manufacturing by which objects are built by adding materials on top of each other or adding subsequent layers. 3D printers that are used at home work using techniques such as fused deposition modelling (FDM) or stereolithography (SLA). Bigger industries prefer to use selective laser sintering (SLS).
In the FDM technique, a spool of filament is run into an extruder that heats the filament, melts it, and deposits it on a build platform. SLA involves blasting a vat of liquid photopolymer resin in order to turn it into a solid. On the other hand, SLS uses a laser beam to convert powdered metal into a solid object.
3D printers that use plastics generally make use of thermoplastics like polylactic acid (PLA) or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS). PLA is used to make compostable plastic cups and other utensils, whereas ABS is used to make Lego bricks. Today, 3D printers can use around 100 different types of materials.
3D printing is set to bring about the next industrial revolution. Thus, its effect on our lives and in many important sectors will be profound
1. The environment
3D printers have a lesser impact on the environment since parts of a product can be created using 3D printing technology. This causes less emission of waste and carbon by-products. Thus, 3D printers are slowly replacing traditional manufacturing as a more environmental-friendly option.
Another benefit is that if a 3D printed part malfunctions, it does not have to be discarded like traditionally manufactured parts do. Product parts can also be manufactured as and when needed, and assembled locally. This is advantageous over traditional manufacturing, where products need to be created in large quantities, and have to be assembled before being dispatched. Thus, companies also save money because they do not have to manufacture excess unsold products.
3D printers can create replicas of masterpieces so that the originals can be kept for safekeeping, whereas the replicas can be displayed for the consumption of the public in museums. A popular example are the 3D replicas of Van Gogh’s paintings kept at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Better pieces of modern art, such as headdresses, can also be made using 3D printing.
3. Educational innovations
3D printers can have a huge impact on educational institutions as well. A very real example is the University of Michigan, where 3D printers and scanners are being used in technical departments such as engineering, architecture, and art. 3D printers encourage innovation and development in these fields.
4. Space travel
3D printing is poised to make space travel a great deal easier. Parts of equipment used in space expeditions can be created using 3D printers. Researchers are working to create a 3D printer that can be used in space, under zero gravity. This will enable space stations to become self-sufficient. A 3D printer that can make food for astronauts has also been created. NASA has developed a 3D printer that makes pizza to be eaten in space.
5. Mass manufacturing
Certain industries such as food manufacturing, automobile parts, toy manufacturing, military machinery, and electronics can benefit greatly from 3D printing because it enables faster production of a large quantity of parts, using much less electricity and raw material as compared to traditional manufacturing.
The greatest impact of 3D printing technology will be in the area of medicine and healthcare since it will change the way medicine is practiced. Using 3D printing, patients can “print” their own medicine at home using their own 3D printers. The “prescription” can be downloaded online from their doctors. Potentially, doctors can customize the medicine to suit each patient since tablets and pills can be personally “printed” instead of buying them from the pharmacy.
Bio printing, a form of 3D printing that uses inkjet printers to create living tissues, is another revolution in healthcare. There have been several instances where doctors have been successful in saving a patient’s life by using his or her cells to replicate living tissue. Organovo is a bioprinting company that has developed 3D liver tissues and has plans of commercializing them. The company is also involved with big eye companies to start printing eye tissues.
7. House construction and home goods
Buying one’s own house can become much more affordable with 3D printing. A 3D printer that builds homes has been developed in China. The raw material required is cement and construction waste and the printer can build up to 10 houses in a day. The walls and the overall structure of the house is built by laying layer over layer of material. The cost of producing each house is below $5,000.
Household goods and even jewelry can be produced using 3D printing. It has been estimated that the cost of living reduces in the long run if a family invests in a 3D printer and prints articles of daily use. Tools used in and around the house can also be made at a cheaper rate and using different materials.
8. Global supply chain
Researchers have developed different types of 3D printers that can be used to maintain a global supply chain, even in developing countries. These 3D printers can be used to locally manufacture products and parts that are not easily available, such as prosthetic limbs and clothing.
9. The global economy
Artonery, a computer company founded by Arton Magdalena Drewnicka Latala, has estimated that 3D printing will impact the global economy greatly by 2025. The changes that will be seen on the world stage are improved product development cycles, less expensive systems, a lower cost of entering global markets, and a shift in focus to customized products from mass manufactured products.
10. Intellectual property laws
Finally, another significant impact, albeit a negative one, will be on intellectual property rights and laws. For 3D printing technology to work uninhibited, the designs of products and their parts should be freely available. However, creators of such designs may not share this view and conflicts over intellectual property rights are bound to arise.
Currently, designs are available free of cost on websites such as Thingiverse. Anyone can download them and use or modify them as they choose. For-profit companies will have objections to their designs being used so freely. Such issues over intellectual property will have to be sorted out, once 3D printing becomes the norm.