What’s Next for 3D Printing?

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Like so many other things we think of as futuristic, 3D printing is actually already all around us. 3D printers are in use in schools, industrial production, medical facilities and in the automotive and aviation industries.

It’s still very much a technology in development, though it has the potential to transform the way things are made and done in many different fields. If you want to take a quick look at the current state of 3D printing and where it’s headed, keep reading here.

What do 3D Printers Actually Do?

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing, and that is in fact a more accurate description of the process. The 3D printer uses materials like plastics, liquids, and metal powders and grains to create a three dimensional object with instructions from a digital file. In that sense it’s not really a printer, because it doesn’t print anything in the traditional sense, but rather builds it up layer by layer. Nevertheless, the name is rooted in the history of 3D printers, which are descended from the kind of two-dimensional ink-on-paper printers we are more familiar with. 

3D printers use the instructions in a CAD (computer-aided deisgn) file or other digital model to make an object layer by layer. The object could be a prototype, a hobby model, a medical device or even spare parts for an airplane. Which brings us to the next question: what can you do with 3D printing?

What Can You Make with a 3D Printer? 

3D printers have been used in a number of different settings like manufacturing, medical facilities and schools. Their versatility and speed makes them popular for making prototypes for industrial designs, which can be easily modified. The list of 3D printed objects is constantly growing, and includes tools, jewelry, furniture, toys, and parts for the automotive and aviation industries. 

The use of 3D printing for industrial production can help manufacturers to streamline their warehousing and inventory, by shifting to print-on-demand rather than producing huge quantities of any item. In the medical world, 3D printers are used to make prosthetics, hearing aids, artificial teeth, and bone grafts. Special 3D printers for food can be used to make pizza, pasta, candy, and even French cuisine.

One of the most intriguing uses for 3D printing is in the world of archeology and museums, to create accurate replicas of fragile artifacts. The replicas can be used for display, preserving the originals. Museums around the world are also putting 3D models of their priceless artifacts in the public domain. So if you own a 3D printer, you can make your own replica of a rare fossil, or an ancient sculpture, or the Apollo 11 command module Columbia, which was the only part of the spaceship to return to earth intact. 

At-home 3D printers are already available, and quite affordable. Though at present they are mostly used for hobbies and crafts projects, they have a great many potential uses.

How Green is 3D Printing? 

When 3D printing first became widely available about a decade ago, it was also seen as a green technology with the potential to reduce the environmental footprint of manufacturing processes. One of the most important features of additive manufacturing is that it uses less material in making objects than traditional manufacturing processes. This means there is much less wastage of raw materials.

Further, since 3D objects are typically produced in situ, at the location where they will be used, there are no transportation costs for the finished product. On the other hand, it has been seen over time that 3D printing is very energy-intensive because it needs very high temperatures to “cure” materials. However, metal objects require less energy to produce than those made from plastics or resins.

Still, it’s too early to make the call on whether or not 3D printing is a green technology. It is certainly a technology that is in process of development, and has the potential to develop in a more sustainable direction.

The Way Ahead for 3D Printing 

3D printing is already in use in the world around us, though it also has a long way to go. In many ways, the only limits to what can be done with 3D printing are those imposed by the human imagination. The technology does have the potential to transform manufacturing, education, medicine and many other fields that define our lives. 

Some of the most ambitious projects in the works include: printing kidneys and other organs from live tissue to eliminate long waiting times for transplants, printing all house building materials on site to reduce the cost, time and ecological footprint of building a home, and printing pizza for astronauts to eat in space.

Unlike much of the tech that we use to maintain connectivity, 3D printing isn’t very visible. But it is already all around us. The future is here—are we ready for it?

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