It’s not just a revolution for home-based makers, you know!Although 3D printing’s current popularity stems from its growing success as a home technology, there are applications outside the home (and office) that make it increasingly clear that we’ve only scratched the surface of what 3D printing might be able to do. While consumer 3D printers tend to create small and relatively simple objects, the principles they’re based on are radically transforming other industries. If you aren’t convinced that 3D printing is the future, maybe you’ll change your mind once you’ve read this.
The medical industry has a number of uses for 3D printing which are already in active development, if not regular use today. The field of prosthetics has had immediate benefits from the technology as it allows the creation of limbs and joints specially shaped to fit the recipient’s body topology. The time to create prosthesis of any kind is also massively reduced by 3D printing – essentially making it an in-house task. It’s also becoming popular for surgeons to create 3D models of body parts using scans of a patient so that they can practise operations before they perform them.In many cases 3D printing doesn’t allow anything new to happen – it simply streamlines and simplifies existing procedures. For example, the Invisalign dental treatment uses 3D scans and 3D printing to create clear plastic braces that fit over patients’ teeth to gradually move them into place without the need for metal fixtures; 3D printing didn’t make this possible, but it did make it a commercially viable technique.3D printing has even made the leap to printing biological tissue. Devices called ‘Bioprinters’ can dispense so-called ‘pretissue’ cells in a similar manner to a 3D printer dispensing plastic. This pretissue creates a biological framework that can be used as a scaffold for regenerative bone and skin growth or, in some cases, aid the growth of artificial organs. The technology is still in its earliest days, but it’s not inconceivable that one day a combination of 3D printing and cell-cloning techniques will mean transplants and grafts will take place using 3D-printed organs created using patients’ own cells.At present, the technical hurdles to creating 3D-printed organs are, admittedly, large – for a start the organs lack cardiovascular systems, so the interior cells are starved of oxygen and die – but not so large as to be insurmountable. Researchers have 3D-printed proof-ofconcept cell structures containing a vascular system that keeps it alive, so in effect the final step is combining the two. If this can be achieved it would have a significant effect on mortality – both directly, in terms of saving lives, and by making drug testing and research more efficient and accurate through the use of human tissue.3D printing in the construction industry occurs at many levels, from concept to realisation. There’s almost no part of the process which isn’t able to benefit in some way from the technology. For example, the concept stage of building is being significantly streamlined by 3D printing. In the past, architects were required to produce tens, maybe hundreds of renderings to demonstrate how a building would look once complete. Models could be created, but they were time-consuming especially with formliner concrete.Computer Aided Design means it’s possible to 3D print scale replicas of everything from a building exterior to its individual internal features, so that clients can get a perfect view of the concept before a brick has ever been placed. Indeed, it has been reported that 3D printed models are sturdier and lighter than previous technologies, and 3D printing has reduced the time from concept to model by 50-80%.On an altogether larger scale, the creation of simple, slot-together houses and buildings is being aided by 3D printing, which makes it easy for manufacturers to create compatible joints and fittings across multiple parts, ultimately reducing the amount of precision working required to assemble houses. If that sounds futuristic, at least one person – Dr. Behrokh Khoshnevis, as part of his research at the University of Southern California – has tried to create a 3D printer capable of printing an entire house.Khoshnevis’ system uses a process known as ‘Contour Crafting’, which is an additive manufacturing technique that deposits layers of materials (such as concrete) into set patterns. In theory, conductive and insulating material could also be laid down by the printer so that houses have plumbing and even electrics built-in from the very start.Although 3D printing has the potential to cause profound changes within some industries, it’s likely that the most rapid uptake will be in areas where the possibilities are more pedestrian and therefore easier to adopt as part of an existing commercial framework. Product manufacturers, for example, are increasingly abandoning traditional methods in favour of 3D printing. As strange as it might sound, 3D-printed clothing is already a reality. Everything from dresses to shoes have been produced as proof-ofconcept pieces, and in a commercial context Nike has used 3D printing to create custom-fit shoes for athletes.Custom Eyewear is also a popular area of expansion, with 3D printing used to create rapid prototype frames. These can then be properly manufactured with lenses fitted once the customer is happy with a specific design.In car manufacturing, the possibility of 3D printed parts has already become a reality. At present it tends to be at the high end of the market – Swedish manufacturer Koenigsegg, for example, touted the fact that its One:1 supercar used a significant number of 3D printed parts. 3D printed hardware is likely to become more and more common in cars, though, as it allows for greater intricacy, smaller manufacturing runs, lighter components and easier replacement of damaged components. Indeed, if you need a part replaced, a mechanic might be able to download the original designs and print a replacement for you.In September 2014, US company Local Motors proved that 3D printing wasn’t just for less traditional parts when it demonstrated large-scale additive manufacturing processes that used fiber-reinforced thermoplastic to 3D print an entire car body. Eventually the company plans to 3D print an entire car to demonstrate the depth of possibilities 3D printing offers the automotive industry.It’s almost impossible to go into full detail about the range of things that can or will benefit from the introduction of 3D printing. RAF jets have flown using 3D-printed parts, and in 2013 a pop-up shop created 3D-printed vinyl records to sell to the public on record store day. If that doesn’t adequately demonstrate how 3D printing has the potential to travel the length and breadth of culture, then nothing will.