3D printing is opening new possibilities for serious applications
The decreasing cost of 3D printers over the past few years has opened them up to a wider consumer base, even making it possible for the average person to print objects at home. Think model figurines, ornamental objects – anything with a novelty value. . . But move away from these gimmicky applications, and you’ll see that the boundaries of 3D printing are being stretched in more and more ingenious ways. As the technology develops, 3D printers are beginning to revolutionise all kinds of industries, from industrialised manufacturing to medicine. So what are some of the more serious applications of 3D printing, and how will they affect businesses in the future?
1. Medical Research
A team from the University of Nottingham has recently 3D printed a prototype brain scanner. Designed to fit snugly around the head, this helmet-style scanner uses a new brain imaging technique called Magnetoencephalography (MEG). Because the sensors in the helmet can be placed directly on the scalp, the device operates at four times the sensitivity level of current scanners. It’s now possible to measure brain activity that has never been detected before. The portable and comfortable helmet design also means that patients can move freely and undertake a range of different tasks whilst their brains are being scanned. It is set to throw light on our most complex organ like never before.
2. Saving Coral Reefs
It’s a fact: rising sea temperatures are destroying our ocean ecosystems. There’s nowhere this is more evident than in the decimation of the planet’s coral reefs. But with 3D printing, there could be a glimmer of hope. Last month six 3D printed coral structures were set on the sea floor off the coast of Monaco. Created by maritime company Boskalis, these artificial corals are made from the same materials as the real thing. Their intricate tunnels and tiny cave structures mimic natural formations, encouraging living coral polyps to inhabit them. Tests have shown that marine life is far more likely to set up home in these complex 3D printed structures than the concrete versions tried out in the past.
3. Disaster Relief
In September 2017 the Atlantic experienced the highest number of hurricanes on record. In the Caribbean, entire communities were flattened, causing billions of dollars’ worth of damage in some of the world’s poorest countries. Transporting supplies across disaster-stricken areas such as these is a nightmare for humanitarian organisations. Step up 3D printing. Millebot Inc has built a 3D printing platform inside a shipping container. This portable technology can run off generators and manufacture whatever is required, from medical supplies, water bottles and simple hand tools. Along with these small-scale objects, 3D printing can provide larger structures crucial to disaster relief. Earlier this year Apis Cor 3D printed an entire house within 24 hours. This technology could soon be rolled out to create safe, temporary shelters to house people whose homes have been destroyed.
4. Children’s Prosthetics
With the cost of traditional prosthetic limbs easily reaching thousands of pounds, they are an uneconomical option for children who will grow out of them quickly. By contrast, 3D printed limbs can be manufactured comparatively quickly, and at a fraction of the cost. Welsh company Ambionics was created when the young son of its founder had to have his arm amputated from the elbow down. Using Stratasys 3D printers, Ambionics builds functional, moving arms that can be fitted to children under the age of three. Studies have shown that introducing children to prosthetics before this age makes them far less likely to reject them. These 3D printed arms are made without small parts, so they are safe for children to use. Crucially, providing infants with prosthetics such as these make sure that they don’t miss out on learning essential motor skills.
5. 3D Printing in Space
If humankind’s ultimate mission is to live amongst the stars, then 3D printing is going to help get us there. Way back in 2014 under contract with NASA, Made in Space Inc successfully printed a ratchet wrench on the International Space Station. The implications of this landmark achievement are clear. For long-term missions such as deep space exploration, 3D printing could solve the problem of resupplying spacecraft with the equipment they need. And that doesn’t just mean tools. Earlier this year Beehex unveiled a robot that can 3D print pizza in space. Saving space travellers from freeze-dried food will be a welcome development for astronauts, but the ability to manufacture food is an essential factor in planning missions further and further afield. If we want to send manned spacecraft deep into space, then they need to be self-sufficient. 3D printing could help to provide the solution.
Not only does 3D printing solve problems, it revolutionises invention. With 3D printing we can create objects that would never have been possible under traditional methods of manufacture. It has been proven to improve efficiency, cut costs and reduce manufacturing time in just about every existing industry. Now, it is leading to the creation of entirely new business sectors, with its applications in environmental and medical settings particularly welcome. It appears that where 3D printing is concerned, its uses are limited only by our own ingenuity. That’s one serious piece of technology.