The Cubify Cube has been making headlines in the print world since the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas but it was only one of the many 3D printers on display and the subject of 3D printing is very much en vogue at the moment. It seems that, almost daily, new potential applications are being found for the 3D printers and we could be about witness profound changes in the worlds of design and manufacturing. Although the underlying technology hasn't changed a great deal, the potential revolution in 3D printing will come about as we find new ways to use it and integrate it with other technologies (which have moved on significantly).
One of the more ambitious applications for a 3D printer has been proposed by NASA, which has launched a project to develop one for the International Space Station. The idea is to provide a quick and cost-effective way of manufacturing spare parts in orbit. Currently, when something breaks or wears out on the space station, the astronauts have to wait for a replacement to be sent from Earth if there isn't one on board. Needless to say, this is extremely costly, time-consuming and carries all the inherent risks of launching a vehicle into space. With a 3D printer and a supply of raw material to hand, the astronauts can simply enter the schematics of the required part into the printer and have a new part ready in hours, rather than weeks or months.
Since parts manufactured in space do not need to withstand the stresses of a rocket launch or Earth's gravity, they can be up to 30% less massive than those produced on Earth, saving yet more money and resources. NASA aims to have a working 3D printer on board the ISS by 2014 and has already tested a number of commercial printers in simulated microgravity, leading to the first tool (a small wrench) to be printed in a partial gravity environment.
Closer to home, there are plenty more potential applications for 3D printing and some of these are having an impact already. Mark Frame, a trainee orthopaedic surgeon in Scotland has used a combination of readily-available technology and bag loads of initiative to make complex operations cheaper and easier. When a surgeon needs to carry out a difficult procedure on a damaged bone it is standard practice to have a 3D model of the bone made, based on a CT scan image. However, this can be expensive and even a partial arm bone can cost £800. Frame used open source software to clean up CT scan images and convert them to a format that can be read by a 3D printer. He then sent the image to a company called Shapeways in the Netherlands, who printed the model bone and posted it to him for a total cost of £77.
There are many more potential applications for 3D printing in medicine; for instance, New Scientist reported in 2009 that a team from Insel Hospital in Berne, Switzerland, created a replica of a man's thumb bones using a 3D printer. A 3D scan was made of the thumb bones and used to print a scaffold containing thousands of tiny pores in which new bone cells could grow. The bone cells then replicated and eventually replaced the scaffold with living, growing tissue. Eventually, 3D printers could even be used to grow entire organs.
Commercially, the applications for 3D printing could be almost limitless and we touched on the implications for designers and engineers in our article, 3D Printing At Home. It is already possible to buy a range of 3D-printed consumer goods from plastic toys and action figures to personalised decorative items for the home. It's even possible to buy 3D-printed jewellery, although the printers can't print in silver or gold just yet – the printer creates a wax version of the item, which is surrounded by plaster to create a mould. The molten metal is then poured in, replacing the wax and leaving behind a metal version of your creation, which is finished off by hand. Buying jewellery, and many other consumer items, may never be the same again – instead of choosing from a range of available products, you can customise any design, or create your own from scratch, and have it printed out to give you a bespoke product every time.
3D printers allow objects to be created in exotic materials and printed into shapes and designs which would be costly and/ or difficult to achieve using other methods. This gives artists the opportunity to create unique and interesting designs and, on a more practical level, may be used to help create the buildings of the future. A team at Loughborough University is working on a 3D concrete printer, which will be able to create large building components on site and to any design. Manufacturing applications for 3D printing are currently limited but the technique has been used to create objects such as surgical knee replacements and engine components. These examples are very much the exception rather than the rule at the moment but do show what can be done and open up yet more exciting possibilities for the future.
These are just a few examples of what 3D printing do at the moment, or will be able to in the very near future. We could talk at even more length about the many current and potential applications for 3D printing but that could end up running to several pages. Suffice to say, exciting things are happening in the world of 3D printing right now and, it seems, we're just beginning to explore what it can do. No doubt, there'll be plenty more to say on the subject in the coming weeks and months, so keep reading!
by Anthony Morgan