3D printing has opened the door to virtually unlimited applications that are changing people’s lives and how businesses do business all around the world. We have compiled a list of 9 industries that stand to benefit a tremendous amount from the future of 3D printing.
1. Medical Applications
The FDA lists 3 commercially available applications of 3D printing that are currently being used in the medical sector: Medical devices, Implants and external prosthesis. Most of these applications use powder bed fusion or a fused deposition modelling method, which allow for the use of both plastic and metallic materials.
The main benefit that 3D Printing brings to this space is the ability to personalize the product to the specific case of the patient. Doctors can print custom tools that act as surgical guides to assist with proper placement of medical devices. Recently, we saw the example of the dachshund that had a tumor removed and a replacement skull implanted that was made from a metal 3D printer. Doctors created a 3D model of the dog’s skull and tumor. The tumor was successfully removed, and the 3D printed skull implant slid right in. The dog, Patches, was awake and walking around within 30 minutes after the operation was completed. The future of 3D printing could bring even more of these highly advanced procedures with personalized medical implants.
Another project in works by E-nable, is creating a network of designers, engineers, physicians, makers and patients to create and share 3D printable prosthetics. At upwards of $70,000, prosthetics were once considered a luxury, however, 3D printing is bringing the opportunity to have a high-quality and price efficient prosthetic to the masses.
In recent years, 3D printed buildings have become, somewhat of a phenomenon with many new and exciting possibilities opening up. The advantages are savings in material and labor during construction as well as the unique shapes and designs that are not otherwise possible with traditional construction methods. There is even research being conducted, looking into the possibility of using 3D Printing to build structures in space and on the moon.
In most 3D Printing construction sites, concrete is the material of choice, but there are many other materials being used including stainless steel, foam, wax, cellulose, glass and a wide variety of other composite materials. The efficiencies gained in material and labor cost mean that affordable housing in mass may soon be available for the 1 billion poorest people in the world. Many startups are coming online with the capability of building houses up to 800 sq. ft in less than a day, with costs currently in the $4,000 range.
3D printing is also starting to take hold in the classroom as instructors across the globe are realizing the value of 3D printing. Namely, it allows for a hands-on experience that keeps students engaged and focused. Graphic design students are using printers to create various designs and shapes. Architecture students can quickly and cheaply create real-life 3D models of the buildings they are designing. History students can learn with replicas of historical objects. Biology students can print models of organs and other objects to study their anatomy and composition. Mechanics can use 3D printing to create components to study the design and function of various mechanical components. Culinary classes can create custom molds to create unique food shapes. The possibilities and benefits seem endless. Despite living in a world of digitization, 3D Printing provides critical hands-on experiences for the future generations of countless fields and industries.
4. Rapid Prototyping
Rapid prototyping with 3D printing has been around for decades; whether it be for concept modelling or a functional prototype to measure performance. However, now, due to recent developments in the industry that have led to reductions in cost and improvements on speed and quality, prototyping with 3D printing is a more attractive option now more than ever. Rather than spending time investing in tooling for costly production runs, companies are turning to 3D printing with increasing confidence to provide concept models and functional models to develop ideas and then measure the performance of the part that they are designing. This gives more insight and feedback to companies prior to investing in a production run, thus improving businesses ROI.
Night guards, braces, crowns, retainers. These are just a few of the products that are now being 3D Printed in dentists’ offices across the world. The old process involved getting a mold taken of the patient’s teeth and sending it to a lab to process and create the particular guard or retainer product desired, a process that typically took weeks to months. With 3D printing, that process has been cut down to approximately 45 minutes. The dentist simply scans the patients mouth to create a 3D model of the patient’s teeth. This model is then processed and sent to the printer which is either located at a lab offsite or oftentimes even onsite in the dentist’s office. What has now been coined as “digital dentistry” is now making dental products more affordable and widely available.
6. Low Volume Manufacturing
Originally, 3D printing was only used for prototyping. However, that is quickly changing as more and more companies are running the numbers and discovering that, at low volumes, 3D printing is cheaper than other conventional fabrication methods. This is because most fabrication methods including injection molding and casting require the use of special tooling. This makes conventional methods very expensive at low volumes because there is a large up-front fixed cost, but not enough volume of product to amortize this fixed cost across the production run. 3D Printing does not require any tooling and requires very minimal setup time. For this reason, 3D printing, as the technology has matured has become an attractive option for businesses looking for scalable growth and design flexibility in the early product development cycle. The future of 3D printing could enable, not just low volume production, but mass production of consumer and industrial products.
Tooling is a critical and often a very costly portion of the manufacturing process. Therefore, many companies have turned to 3D Printing to help them lower costs, improve lead times and open new design possibilities. There are fixtures, jigs, locating templates, and various other production aids that allow technicians to locate various hole locations and other periphery edges for trimming. Additionally, AM is also used for castings and molds. A 3D Printed tool is a good option for sacrificial casting as it is cheap and quick to make. Molds are increasingly being used as well in the composite space. 3D printed layup tools have historically not had the thermal properties to withstand the high heat that it must withstand in an autoclave. However, with the introduction of new, more advanced 3D printing materials, this is now becoming a reality.
3D Printing also has applications for architecture. Architects can now build early-stage models and building visualizations with ease, allowing for a more tangible experience when developing ideas and designs for new buildings. 3D Printing is also easily integrated into many architecture firms’ workflows, as they typically already have CAD models of the buildings being designed that can easily translate to a 3D printable file. The introduction of new 3D printable building materials has also opened new design options for architects who, with 3D printing, can utilize it both in the design process and the actual construction.
3D Printing also has a role to play in fashion, as new advancements in speed and materials have allowed companies like Adidas to partner with 3D printer manufacturer Carbon to produce shoe soles in large volumes. Carbon’s digital light synthesis technology enables print speeds up to 10 times faster and the technology also allows for Adidas to specify which areas of the foot receive the most density and therefore the most support. With other methods, shoe manufacturers must combine multiple materials with varying densities together to get the required support.
The jewelry sector has also been impacted by 3D Printing. The improved dimensional accuracy of modern printers means that quick and inexpensive casting patterns can be made from PLA and even end products can be produced with specialty metals such as gold and silver. Many jewelers are now discovering the capabilities and value that 3D printing brings to their workflows.