More than three decades on from its invention, will 3D printing remain one to watch in 2018?
2017 was another exciting year for 3D printing. Advancements in printable materials combined with progress in mechanical techniques to develop the creation of different objects, and the purposes they are suitable for. Across the board, 3D printing kept its reputation for reducing costs and improving efficiency in manufacturing and engineering. It also showed that it can serve unique purposes in such fields as healthcare and robotics. Let’s look back at some of the highlights of 3D printing over the last year.
1) Printing with metal
Successfully 3D printing with metal can be a difficult feat. It is easy for microscopic holes to appear in the structure of an item as a result of the printing process or the materials being used. This leads to weaknesses in finished parts, making many 3D printing techniques unsuitable for industrial manufacturing. Nevertheless, many companies have made strides in the introduction of metal 3D printing to large scale industrial applications. Siemens 3D printed gas turbine blades from a nickel based alloy, which passed full load testing. GE Additive unveiled its Project A.T.L.A.S. programme, designed to aid the production of large, complex metal parts. Working in partnership with a commercial vendor, NASA successfully 3D printed a rocket part from two different metal alloys. The difficulty of printing with two types of metal signals another milestone on the way to creating complex, strong and cost effective parts for the aerospace industry.
2) 3D printed vaccines
In a development that could revolutionise the pharmaceutical industry, 2017 saw engineers at MIT invent a 3D printed vaccine that offers multiple immunisations with one vaccination. By designing a new 3D printing technique known as SEAL (StampEd Assembly of polymer Layers), the team created 3D microparticles capable of holding vaccine doses. Crucially, the biocompatible polymer used to make these microparticles can be engineered to biodegrade at specific rates – enabling the release of their contents into the body at different stages. It is therefore possible to give patients one injection which then delivers multiple doses of a vaccine over time. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this ground breaking project will improve immunisation rates for those without regular access to healthcare. It is envisaged that in the future, with just a single visit to the doctor, babies could receive all the immunisations they need for the first two years of life.
3) 3D printing in the construction industry
Using its mobile RC3dp concrete printer, CyBe Construction successfully 3D printed a concrete bench on site for Dutch company Dura Vermeer. The accomplishment of this operation led CyBe to set itself the challenge of creating 5 more benches in one day. Their achievement of an overall production time of under 4 hours indicates the way that prefab factories may work in the future. On a larger scale, the Eindhoven University of Technology used their giant concrete printer to construct a pedestrian bridge. Working with BAM Infra, the University created what they are calling the world’s first bridge to be printed from reinforced concrete. Successfully assembled and safety tested, it opened to the public in October 2017.
4) 3D printing and robotics
The intersection of 3D printing with robotics led to some exciting advances in 2017. Using 3D printing techniques enables robotics engineers to create complex parts from a range of materials that are capable of performing diverse functions. The University of Tokyo built two humanoid robots called Kenshiro and Kengoro which can perform human activities such as press ups and stretches. By using 3D printing, the team was able to replicate some features of the human musculoskeleton in metal and plastic materials. As a result, these robots have imitation human skeletons, tendons, articulated joints and a central nervous system. The 3D printing of the Kengoro robot from porous metal has even given it the ability to sweat. Whilst this feature might seem a little out of place in a robot, it is in fact highly functional, and designed to cool down the robot’s motors when it overexerts itself.
5) Sale of the millionth desktop 3D printer
2017 saw the sale of the millionth desktop 3D printer. The popularity of these machines in the consumer market shows the impact of successfully transferring industrial technology for mainstream adoption. The use of desktop 3D printers, capable of creating items from diverse materials, is burgeoning amongst designers, small manufacturers, artists, hobbyists and scientists – proving that this technology is more than just a gimmick. Way back in 2014 Amazon launched its 3D printing store, selling individual 3D printed items. It now wants to 3D print custom items in delivery trucks as they head to the consumer.
I’m certain, like DISRUPTIONHUB, you’ll definitely want to watch this space develop even further in 2018.