Taking Printing to the Next Dimension

From blood vessels to rocketships; discusses the exciting prospects of 3D printing

Image by Jonathan Abolins

Image by Jonathan Abolins

Only a few years ago 3D printing was reserved exclusively for those working at the cutting edge of technology. These days however, the notion of having a 3D printer at home is becoming increasingly common; some supermarkets are now even inviting customers to enquire about 3D printing in store, and the University of York has recently invested in its own 3D printer. Clearly such devices are coming to play an increasingly prominent role in our lives, but just how much of a difference could they really make?

For such a young technology our achievements in the field of 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, have been quite astounding and cover a phenomenal range of applications. In Germany, a team of scientists have been experimenting in an attempt to print blood vessels, using layers upon layers of artificial cells to develop a tissue structure. Meanwhile, in the UK, a team at Heriot-Watt University have successfully managed to print clusters of human stem cells with a view to creating artificial organs. In years to come this could lead to more reliable drug testing and even the ability to produce organs as and when needed, while eliminating any problems of rejection.

At the other end of the scale, many car companies have invested in additive manufacturing as a means of producing cars at a fraction of the current cost, while Italian inventor, Enrico Deni, has successfully designed a 3D printer capable of producing an entire building from scratch. This of course has the potential to substantially cut the cost architectural work, while making far more complex structures easily achievable. Other printing endeavours worth noting include a successful attempt to produce noodles, and a Japanese company who, using data from MRI scans, offer parents the opportunity to take home a 3 dimensional model of their unborn child.

3D printing could give us the ability to design and produce anything we choose at the click of a button. Image by Creative Tools.

3D printing could give us the ability to design and produce anything we choose at the click of a button. Image by Creative Tools.

Additive manufacturing was first successfully achieved in 1984 by Chuck Hull. His original patent was for a photo-polymerisation technique whereby a vat of liquid polymer was exposed to light from a projector which caused the polymer to harden. By exposing only those areas of the polymer he wished to form part of the finished product, and draining any excess liquid afterwards, Hull was able to produce a variety of printed shapes. Techniques very similar to this are still used today in which lasers are used instead of a projector, meaning objects of under 100 nanometres in size can be easily produced.

Unsurprisingly however this is not the cheapest means of 3D printing and so a variety of other techniques have been developed. Most commonly, the method used for domestic 3D printers involves using computer aided design software to break a structure down into cross sections. Using lasers, each cross section is then etched out on to a layer of plastic and topped with a resin, ready for the next layer to be etched. In this way the structure is built up until the object is complete.

Using a technique very similar to this, the European Space Agency (ESA) recently unveiled plans to “take 3D printing into the metal age”. Here, instead of plastics and resin, each cross section is etched on to a metal powder and heated to the point where it solidifies. More powder is then added for the next layer and so the process repeats. Using this technique, ESA’s project ‘amaze’ (which stands, somewhat roughly, for Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste and Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products) has led to the production of Tungsten alloy components capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 3000°C. Such components would be ideally suited for use, either as rocket parts, or in nuclear fusion reactors. Indeed, being able to simply print out such components could mark a substantial landmark on the path to commercial nuclear fusion.

Looking at the bigger picture, 3D printing seems very likely to lead not only to rapid advances in medicine, but also in energy production. Manufacturing industries look set to be completely revolutionised, with additive manufacturing techniques providing the opportunity to produce much more complex shapes at a fraction of the cost, while simultaneously keeping waste to an absolute minimum.

Of course, as with any exciting new technology, additive manufacturing could have its downsides. It has been well documented that the US have managed to use 3D printing to produce working machine guns. Naturally, there is therefore a concern that domestic 3D printers could give people the opportunity to readily produce their own weapons. Careful legislation will be needed to ensure this doesn’t become a serious issue as 3D printing looks set to become an intrinsic part of our daily lives. A further potential disadvantage presents itself primarily to those in the manufacturing industry. There is a concern that the widespread use of additive manufacturing techniques could lead to a severe loss of jobs. By contrast however, it will almost certainly open new doors for those interested in design, making the prospects of manufacturing ideas and prototypes from home more enticing than ever.

This German-made printer is designed for home use. Image by Creative Tools

This German-made printer is designed for home use. Image by Creative Tools

Only 29 years have passed since the very first additive manufacturing technique was successfully tested, yet while 3D printers are still a little too expensive to come across in your average household, it seems only a matter of time before they become truly ubiquitous. It is indeed very plausible that before long we will live in a world where, instead of going out to the shops to buy a new item of furniture or crockery, we will simply go online, find a blueprint we like, and print it off at a fraction of the cost.

The possibilities for 3D printing are almost endless; we are still in the very early stages of the technology and already it appears to be revolutionising every industry it touches. Additive manufacturing will quite definitely change the world; let us just hope it does so for the better.

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