Everyone’s heard of 3D printing by now – it certainly gets enough publicity – but you may be in the dark about what it actually is and the possibilities it holds.
3D printing (or additive manufacturing) is one of the main processes used to create three-dimensional objects mechanically. It mainly works by adding successive layers of material onto a build platform. Most 3D printers use a technique called fused deposition modelling, which is simply a form of plastic extrusion.
Applications are abundant for 3D printing, now used widely in product development, prototyping and specialist manufacturing; the Audi RSQ (the car from I, Robot) was 3D printed. The technique can also be used on micron scales – a 285-micron long race car has been 3D printed.
Despite the relatively recent explosion of interest, 3D printing has been around since the 80s. In 1984 the 3D Systems Corporation invented the stereolithography process, which involves the addition of layers by curing polymers with UV lasers.
There are many different techniques for printing, the most popular being SLS (selective laser sintering), FDM (fused deposition modelling) and stereolithography (SLA). The technology has seen such a huge uptake recently that Windows 8 now has added native support for 3D printing software, in addition to Linux and Mac OS X supporting it.
NASA have recently been utilizing 3D printing technology on the International Space Station. On 25th November 2014, the astronauts aboard the space station created a small plaque that read “MADE IN SPACE”, to test the viability of printing in space. Some calibrations were required to compensate for the microgravity aboard the space station but it was successful.
When commander Barry Wilmore asked for a wrench, instead of sending one up with the next mission to the ISS, they instead emailed Wilmore a CAD design on December 19th. All that was needed was to make sure the CAD design was in the right file format and later that day the wrench was printed. This is the first 3D printed object produced to suit an astronaut’s needs, and a further 21 objects have now been 3D printed in space. They are to be brought back to Earth for additional performance testing.
In the future, it is hoped we will be able to 3D print organs and bodily tissues. This bioprinting has seen some early success with skin, bone and heart tissue and will be extended to more complex organs in future. If 3D printing wasn’t enough, 4D printing is being researched; essentially 3D printing, but using a material that can be transformed and change shape with a stimulus. These stimuli can be temperature, electricity, pressure, chemical or light. Sounds like some truly next-gen stuff.
Feature Image: 3dprintingincubator.com