Is 3D printing the next revolutionary technology?

Is 3D printing the next revolutionary technology?

What is 3D printing I hear you asking? It’s a revolutionary new technique that can produce, well, pretty much anything you want! It relies on a digital model to provide the blue prints for what you want to make. However, unlike current manufacturing processes which cut or form shapes out of a raw material, 3D printing builds from the ground up, meaning little or no waste and dramatically reduced costs.

What is astounding is the range of applications for which 3D printing could be exploited. It has already been used in the fashion world to create bags, jewellery and shoes. There’s also a range of custom-designed 3D printed guitars, including a honeycomb guitar that has little bees sat inside the honeycomb. It’s even been used to build a car! And if that wasn’t enough, 3D printing can use biological tissue to create new body parts such as kidneys or ears, the latter of which grows its own ligaments to become sturdy. In addition to these, NASA have suggested they may use 3D printing to build a moon-base using lunar soil; a Dutch architect plans to build a house using the world’s largest 3D printer; and more printable food is on the horizon after the introduction of a $300,000 printed burger in the US (something that will excite the star trek fans out there).

Since it’s climate week, it’s important to point out that 3D printing is something that could be extended into the realms of renewable energy, more specifically with solar panels. The problem is that current technologies have many more drawbacks than benefits to deter potential buyers. They are expensive to buy initially, have low efficiencies and work best on south-facing roofs, otherwise they’re not really worth buying. They are also quite heavy and need to be pretty big to generate a useful amount of electricity. These issues could be tackled through the use of 3D printing, as 3D solar panels are predicted to be about 20% more efficient than traditional panels, and will weigh and cost much less. There’s also the fact that you would no longer need a south-facing roof, you just need a roof! The cost would be lower because the panels could be printed pretty much in the front garden, meaning production and shipping costs are lower or removed, but also because the panels would be a lot lighter, resulting in the installation being cheaper.

You might ask why 3D printing might interest you as a student of Leeds University, but imagine if you could turn up to a lab, press a button, and out pops the usually expensive piece of equipment that your lab supervisor told you couldn’t be purchased. Or, imagine you’re a member of a sports team that needs medals or trophies, or even a new racquet or ball, at the press of a button it’s right there waiting for you. It might not be a reality as simple as that yet but believe me when I say it’s coming.

Graham Smith

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