5 Products That Wouldn’t Be Possible Without 3D Printing

Impressive designs showcase the potential of additive manufacturing

We are entering an exciting age for 3D printing. The technology might have been around for a while, but progress is constantly opening up this production method to new developments. From the emerging application of 3D printing to mass production, to its use in design and prototyping, additive manufacturing has become indispensable to the modern world. D/SRUPTION takes a look at a few of the products which would simply not have been possible without this boundary breaking technology.

1) Advanced robotics

Boston Dynamic’s Atlas robot has been up to its old tricks again. Last year, we witnessed it execute a graceful backflip, and now a video has been released of it going for a run. Crucially, none of Atlas’s movements would have been possible without the use of 3D printing in its manufacture. The robot’s legs presented a particular challenge to create, since they must be lightweight, but strong enough to support the 1.5 metre, 75 kilogramme machine. 3D printing enabled the integration of Atlas’s hydraulic channels and actuator cylinders into its legs themselves. This made the robot lighter and more streamlined. Atlas’s design team also used 3D printing to create the hydraulic power unit (HPU) at the heart of the robot, incorporating the multiple functions required to power the machine into one single part.

2) The key that can’t be forged

Swiss company Urban Alps have created what they are calling “the world’s first” 3D printed metal key. Made from titanium, the Stealth Key is manufactured by building up layers of metal from the inside out. This means that the teeth of the key are made but then can be concealed by narrow ledges of metal. The Stealth Key’s hidden teeth constitute an impressive security upgrade compared to traditional designs, which can easily be scanned and copied. Although the company doesn’t claim that the key is completely unforgeable, it represents an affordable and far more secure key model for the mass market.

3) High tech absorption products

Fractals are geometric figures where each individual component part has the same structure as the whole. Imagine a pyramid made up of lots of identical smaller pyramids and you get the idea. Such structures made up of internally repeating patterns are extremely difficult to produce with traditional methods of manufacture. However, whilst they are too complex for injection moulding, they pose no problem for 3D printing – and this is good news in the engineering world. The large surface area of fractals presents a host of opportunities as it makes them ideal for absorption. Last year, US Sandia Labs engineers 3D printed solar power receivers in fractal shapes to maximise the amount of sun energy absorbed. 3D printed fractals are also being explored for their soundproofing qualities in the interior of Peugeot’s Fractal Concept car.

4) Cheaper aeroplanes

3D printing has been a boon to aerospace manufacturers, as they seek to make planes lighter, cheaper and more fuel efficient. Boeing first flew with 3D printed parts way back in 2003, but in 2017 used the technique to produce the structural components of an aircraft for the first time. In a venture with Norwegian 3D printing company Norsk Titanium, Boeing began to 3D print parts of its 787 Dreamliner series to reduce the cost of materials. Dreamliner jets are made extensively from titanium alloy, which is strong and lightweight but seven times more expensive than aluminium. 3D printing reduces waste of this valuable material as well as lowering the cost of production itself. It is estimated that the use of 3D printing saves Boeing $2m to $3m per plane.

5) Personalised medical implants

From dental impressions to prostheses, 3D printing offers a cheap and customisable method for manufacturing medical items. Often, it is the only way to provide patients with the care they need. Increasingly, 3D printed models of a patient’s body are used by medical staff to practice for complex operations. 3D printed implants are also an important replacement when traditional products are too expensive or simply not viable for the individual. In 2017, surgeons in Shanghai removed six of the seven vertebrae in a cancer patient’s neck, which they replaced with a customised 3D printed titanium alloy implant. Welsh company Ambionics also uses 3D printing to offer an economical solution to creating prosthetic arms for infant children.

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