3D Printing for Precision Engineering

Micro 3D printing reveals new possibilities

3D printers have already created some seriously impressive things, from edible pizza to fully-functioning robotic arms. Earlier this month, researchers at the University of Stuttgart in Germany took the next step in 3D printing, revealing that they had used stereolithography for precision engineering. There are few things more complicated than our eyes, but that’s exactly what the University team is aiming to replicate in the form of a tiny camera. The camera mimics natural vision by combining four 3D printed lenses of different focal lengths within a single image sensor. According to product leader Harald Giessen, creating a camera of this quality would be impossible without 3D printing. But what can you use the camera for, and how will 3D printing change precision engineering?

3D printed micro-cameras
There are a number of uses for these super small cameras. They could be fitted to insect sized drones for surveillance and security, as well as in construction, natural science and recreational activities. They could even become part of high quality sensors on autonomous vehicles. However, in order for this to happen, 3D print technology has to evolve. At present, they can’t print multi-material lenses, which is a problem for the tiny camera. Using a single plastic can lead to distortions in vision called ‘chromatic aberrations’, which affects overall picture quality. In order to create a closer replication of natural vision without these distortions, the Stuttgart team need to use a combination of plastics. Even though 3D print precision engineering requires technological advancement, new printing materials and solutions are constantly developed. XJet revealed a new liquid printing material last summer which, according to the company, improves the printing process by allowing for smaller details, which sounds perfect for the micro-camera. It will only be a matter of time before 3D printers can create multi-plastic lenses. . . The question is, what comes next? Once 3D printers can use various materials, how will this change traditional 3D printing?

How disruptive is 3D printing for precision engineering?
The cameras developed at the University of Stuttgart are disruptive enough in themselves, as they bring a much higher level of accuracy to image capture. Cameras are vital to a long list of different industries, but the Stuttgart cameras can be churned out at a quicker rate and at a much lower cost. Image quality will be taken to a whole new level. Admittedly, this could be construed as potentially creepy, especially when you imagine miniscule drones keeping tabs on the population.

Big Brother scenarios aside, the real disruption will come from the ability of 3D printers to take on precision engineering tasks. The use of 3D printers for precise manufacturing is not a new idea, and they have long been hailed as a valuable tool for engineers. 3D printing has already disrupted manufacturing, production and design, but the items it has created are actually fairly simple. In many ways, that has been one of 3D printing’s strengths – although the tech may be complicated, the end result isn’t. . . at least until now. Add precise engineering to standard 3D print technology, and the scope of what can be created suddenly balloons. Then add multiple materials, and this has huge implications. Take, for example, healthcare. Instead of printing skin tissue alone, medical grade bioprinters could perhaps create entire limbs. On a less positive note, the expanding capabilities of 3D printing could present a threat to the job stability of engineers themselves – but human designers, engineers and programmers will still be needed unless printers are equipped with autonomous AI. Now, there’s an idea. . .

3D printers have massive potential in precision engineering. High-performance cameras are just the first step. Apply precise, multi-material printing to the medical sector. Instead of making a super accurate camera based on the natural eye, could you eventually make an eye itself? At the moment, 3D print technology still needs to improve before true precision engineering can be achieved. Although developers still need to solve the problem of printing with multiple materials, the team at the University of Stuttgart has taken a pioneering step towards the next generation of 3D printers.

Could your industry benefit from 3D printers and precise engineering? How long will it be before 3D printers can handle multiple materials for true precision engineering? Are 3D printers the engineers of the future? Share your thoughts and opinions.