3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it’s known in industrial terminology, is a process whereby a three-dimensional object is created from a digital file by adding micro-thin layers of materials until the final product is created. Information from a report by Wohlers in 2016, manufacturers sold more than 277,000 desktop 3D printers in 2015.
While 3D printing has a heavy focus as a new technology, it actually has a long history in manufacturing and medical circles. In fact, the first 3D printed working kidney was produced in the year 2000 – however it wasn’t transplanted into a patient for 13 more years. The birth of the 3D printing technology precedes this innovation by around 14 years to 1986 where the first patent for a 3D printing technique was filed. Engineers and designers have been using large and relatively expensive 3D printers since that time, and they’ve used them to create faster prototypes for industries such as aerospace, automotive, and defence.
What can be 3D printed?
The applications of 3D printing are many and varied, spanning industries like architecture, healthcare and medical, technology, and food.
That’s right. Food. Food is already being 3D printed – particularly in the baking/cake making industries. Many of those cute sugar embellishments are 3D printed now. In the future your food may very well be 3D printed, complete with a full micro-nutrient profile that customised specifically for you based upon your current dietary requirements. This application has far reaching potential for areas of the world where access to enough food due to the environment (think natural disasters or ongoing drought) is limited. Cartridges of easy to transport, sustainable materials such as insect protein could be used as an alternative to current methods.
Disaster relief can be realised in other areas too, with rapid printing meaning that objects such as pipes for emergency sanitation repairs and medical equipment can be manufactured quickly and on-demand.
Currently as consumers we can see the rise in the availability of customised goods hitting the market. Many of these are 3D printed, like earbuds that fit specifically to the shape of your ear. Orthotics and prosthetics are now being made by 3D printers. Can’t find a replacement for your 10-year old cabinet handle that broke? No problem – they can 3D print one for you.
The field of health and medical science is one where the ability to 3D print is proving to be exciting. From the production of ears through to muscle tissue, kidneys, bone and cartilage, as well as skin – the ability to 3D print these from the patients own cells is a huge leap forward in minimising organ rejection as well as ensuring that the structure of the organ or body part in question is significantly more precise than via the old way of building them by hand.
In addition, the following industries and applications are relevant for 3D printing:
- Laboratory equipment parts.
- Mechanical part prototyping and design pieces.
- Architecture and building.
- Aeronautics and aerospace.
- Technology and robotics.
- Audio – headphones and custom fit in ear earbuds.
- Drones and drone parts.
- Design – from pieces for handbags through to embellishments for textiles and clothing.
While a desktop 3D printer in every home is likely a decade away, we know that the current pace of the available technology and the rise in sustainable materials able to be used in the 3D print process will mean that in the future the majority of the objects in our everyday lives will be 3D printed from the comfort of our own homes.