The debut of 3D printing has had a spectacular impact on manufacturing. But although the innovative technology has existed for some time, it’s only starting to reach its potential as a staple of advanced manufacturing.
3D printing is the production of a solid object from a three-dimensional digital model using a process in which materials are applied in successive layers to form the duplicate physical object. It is an important part of the additive manufacturing (AM) and rapid prototyping (RP) processes.
The concept of 3D printing first arose in the 1970s, though patents were not filed until the following decade. The 1980s were marked by many milestones, including the patenting and introduction of stereolithography (SLA) and the first SLA machine, as well as the first selective sintering laser (SLS).
While initial applications used photopolymer, a light activated resin, to achieve the final physical characteristics of an object, SLS utilized the capabilities of a laser in synthesizing an object from powdered material instead of liquid for the first time. Now, 3D printing processes utilize three material forms: 3D printer filament, powder, and liquid resin.
3D printing can be achieved with a number of materials including plastics, metals, concrete, ceramics, paper, wood, and even edibles, like chocolate. Polymers, silicone elastomers and metals are the most common materials employed. Choosing the right material is as important as selecting the right process for your application.
Today, there are a range of 3D printing techniques available, including resin-based, filament-based, layers versus extrusion, photoreactive versus UV laser, and others, all made possible by early innovations and patents.
Since 2010, international standards organization ASTM International, previously the American Society for Testing and Materials, has established a regulatory framework for additive manufacturing, which lays out seven categories in which these activities can be classified and regulated.
They are: Vat photopolymerization, under which you can find SLA, digital light processing (DLP) and continuous liquid interface production (CLIP) approaches; material jetting; binder jetting; material extrusion; both fused-deposition modeling (FDM) and fused-filament fabrication (FFF); power bed fusion, including multi jet fusion (MJF), SLS, and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS); sheet lamination; and directed energy deposition.
Despite its decades-long evolution, 3D printing has yet to reach its full potential. According to Acumen Research and Consulting, the global market for 3D printing is anticipated to reach $41 billion by 2026, and will penetrate many more industries and sectors while doing so.
Initially, 3D printing was only adopted by a relatively small community of adventurous engineers, scientists, and hobbyists, and its use was limited to the manufacture of prototypes and one-off projects. As a relatively rapid manufacturing process, 3D printing enabled prototypes to be completed in days instead of weeks, and as there were no required dies or tooling, it slashed costs, making it ideal for short-run, small-batch custom manufacturing projects.
Lower costs, greater convenience and shorter production times helped 3D printing grow its appeal and popularity in countless industries that were quick to see its value. Automotive, for instance, uses the technology to produce spare parts, tools, jigs, and other end-use parts.
3D printing allows for the creation of parts and tools on demand, reducing the need for inventory, and is advantageous where stock is in limited supply. In particular, people who love restoring autos love the technology for letting them print parts that have been off the shelves for decades.
Aerospace, construction, medicine – and more
Aviation and aerospace have also leveraged 3D printing to their advantage. Manufacturers like GE Aviation have used the technology to produce parts that previously required 20 different components. Reducing the number of components from 20 to one not only offer cost savings, but allow for a stronger and lighter part than before.
Construction has also benefited from 3D printing. The application can be used to produce components like individual walls and doors, but also to build entire structures, and do so with far less manual input – a boon during a shortage of skilled labour.
3D printing using concrete, otherwise known as contour crafting, is a process where the walls of a structure are layered and smoothed by a robotic trowel, resulting in a structurally sound building. The technology can reduce budgets, timelines, and waste, simplifying the process and improving the final performance of the structure.
One of the most impressive applications of 3D printing, however, was achieved in the 1990s with the first ever printed organ, a human bladder made from the patient’s own cells. The use of the patient’s cells reduced the risk of rejection and demonstrated the role 3D printing could play in the healthcare field.
That advancement then extended to the creation of the first bio-printed blood vessels – and to a kidney, a hearing aid, and a prosthetic leg. 3D-printed implants are now possible thanks to this technology and its development through the decades. Material innovations like trabecular titanium, a material with a cell structure that imitates trabecular bone morphology, have also made this possible.
From trivial products to developments that save lives, the capacity of 3D printing has grown substantially over the last several decades. This is especially true of its ability to address supply chain shortages, like those caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, where the 3D printing community came together to create print hubs that could support a rapid and scalable response to what was happening.
As a quick, accurate, cost-effective approach to manufacturing, 3D printing stepped up when the closure of borders and interruption of international supply chains threatened the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gowns and face shields, and medical devices like oxygen valves for respirators. One product that could not be supplied fast enough was COVID-19 test swabs.
3D printing company, Formlabs, was able to utilize the technology to print test swabs. A single printer is capable of printing 300 test swabs and by mobilizing nearly 1,000 printers, it was able to produce between 75,000 and 150,000 test swabs a day.
Countless manufacturers have shifted their production processes to meet the increased demand for products. In the meantime, governments made funds available to manufacturers who were willing to retool their operations. Some manufacturers have shared their product design files so as to expedite the production of in-demand emergency goods.
Of course, 3D printed products like PPE and ventilator components are important to the government and the healthcare system’s ability to respond to the pandemic, but the 3D community also found time to innovate in productive ways. This trying time saw the creation of ear-savers for frequent mask wearers, hands-free door-handle openers and button pressers, hand-sanitizer dispensers, and 3D-printed quarantine booths for hospitals, all of which were game changers in their own right.
There are two major reasons why 3D printing was able to respond so quickly in this case: the price of the technology has come down a lot, making it accessible; and the industry is built on open source technology, which has helped it to mainstream success across countless industry applications.
In 2008, an open source project by the name of RepRap Darwin 3D printer, together with a Kickstarter campaign in the following year, improved the commercial viability of the technology through the creation of an accessible platform from which it could be utilized. Just as the number of 3D printers in action increased, so too did the companies that were bringing this technology to the market.
MakerBot introduced the market’s inaugural do-it-yourself 3D-printer kits that launched the technology into numerous households and workshops. The decreasing cost, increasing accuracy, user-friendly applications, and a growing availability of free software programs and resources has cemented its place as a useful, accessible, and popular technology over the last decade or so.
Rising to challenges
As an increasingly common technology, 3D printing continues to innovate. Design competitions and the competitive nature of the community has accelerated innovation and if the industry’s response to the COVID-19 supply chain issues is any indication, this is an industry community that could rise to any challenge.
Not only is 3D printing an important technological innovation and now an essential part of many advanced manufacturing environments, it is a tool that can be used for the greater good of the community, as demonstrated by its COVID-19 response.
Very few applications have the staying power that 3D printing has. As a new technology it did not fizzle out, despite its inability to achieve mainstream success for several decades.
Throughout that time, it proved itself to be invaluable by addressing gaps in the marketplace and finally winning its place in the sun through continuously revolutionizing the way products are made.