A collection of readings highlighting some recent developments in 3D printing.
3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is a process by which 3D objects are created from digital images by ‘adding’ layers of material (in comparison to traditional subtractive manufacturing in which objects are created by ‘removing’ material). Advances in 3D printing present opportunities in manufacturing:
Freed of the constraints of traditional factories, additive manufacturing allows designers to produce things that were previously considered far too complex to make economically.
Weight savings are part of the attraction of 3D-printed parts. With objects being built up layer by layer, it is possible to use just enough material to make the part work.
At present 3D printers make things one at a time or in small batches. But if they could work in a continuous process—like the pill-making machine in the Novartis-MIT laboratory—they could be used on a moving production line. The aim would be to build things faster and more flexibly rather than to achieve economies of scale. Such a line could be used to build products that are too big to fit into existing 3D printers and, because the machine is digitally controlled, a different item could be built on each platform, making mass customisation possible. That would allow the technology to take off.
3D Printing is also becoming cheaper – portable printers are now available for less than 1000 USD.
Introducing UP! mini 3D printer, the much anticipated follow-up of Delta Micro’s flagship 3D printer, UP! Plus. The all-new UP Mini 3D Printer, with its full metal, temperature stabilizing enclosure is available to pre-order at groundbreaking price US$899.
Cheap printers, combined with better software, and portable scanners, could make Star Trek like replicators a reality. This in turn could span new businesses and business models.
The Replicator, a robotic rapid-manufacturing system made by Cybaman Technologies, a British firm, already gets close. The size of a large refrigerator, it is capable of both subtractive and additive manufacturing. It uses a laser-based deposition system to build a basic shape which is finished by machining. The Replicator, as befits its name, is also capable of reverse engineering by digitally scanning an object placed inside it to produce the data needed to build an exact replica.
The Replicator is as near as current technology can get to the teleporter of science fiction. It could scan an object in one place and tell another machine on the other side of the world how to build a copy.
Just as the emergence of e-books means books may never go out of print, components could always remain available. Service mechanics could have portable 3D printers in their vans, or hardware stores could offer part-printing services.
Similarly, a combination of crowdsourcing, and 3D printing can democratize the process of design and enable cheap, mass customization. See this video at http://www.economist.com/node/21553276
3D printing can also potentially change the way communities function:
In a farming culture like India, a 3D printer could allow small parts for broken tractors to be printed, or custom-made connectors for irrigation systems cobbled together from metre upon metre of different types of hose.
However, the applications of 3D printing are not confined to manufacturing:
Some researchers are already using 3D printers to produce simple living tissues, such as skin, muscle and short stretches of blood vessels. There is a possibility that larger body parts, like kidneys, livers and even hearts, could one day be printed—and if the bio-printers can use the patient’s own stem cells, his body would be less likely to reject the printed organs after a transplant.
Food can be printed too. Researchers at Cornell University have already succeeded in printing cupcakes. The “killer app” with food, almost everyone agrees, will be printing chocolate
In this TED talk, living cells are used to print bone (at 7:20) and a currently experimental, human kidney (at 10:10):
There are also prototypes of 3D printers that can print parts for other 3D printers – giving life to the stories of self-spawning machines (and many potential applications).
Now Nasa has taken the RepRap concept one step further with SpiderFab, which proposes putting a large 3D-printing machine in orbit around earth and delivering to it the base materials it can use to build space-station components, satellites, modules and, eventually, entire spacecraft in space, thereby eliminating the vast cost of launching them from the ground.