Even if you’ve never watched Star Trek: The Next Generation, you’ve probably heard of the show’s “replicators” that created food and other objects on demand. The show was never very clear on how these machines worked, but they could create pretty much any inanimate object as long as its molecular structure was on file. When the show debuted in 1987, that idea was generally considered to be a pretty outlandish aspect of the science fiction show. However, with the recent emergence and advancement of 3D printing technology, I think we’re moving toward a reality where the idea of replicating objects from raw materials is a generally accepted practice rather than an element of science fiction. You may even say that the future is now.
Additive manufacturing, the core idea behind 3D printing, has been around longer than you may think. The initial processes, like stereolithography, are actually about 30 years old. Back in 1986, Charles W. Hull patented stereolithography, which is a method and apparatus designed to make solid objects by curing or “printing” thin layers of a material hardened by exposure to ultraviolet light in successive layers, one on top of the other. His methods of using controlled and directed UV light to solidify UV-reactive liquid polymers is still used in some methods of 3D printing today.
Today, there are a myriad of different 3D printing techniques including extrusion, wire, granular, powder bed, laminated, and light polymerised. These methods use a variety of different materials. The most common materials are metals and plastics, but some 3D printers use such diverse materials as silicone, clay, plaster, and even sugar. Today I want to discuss just a few of the many industries that may find themselves using 3D printing, or using it more, as we move further into the future.
Many apparel companies, including Nike, are utilizing 3D printing technology in their prototyping phases. This type of prototyping is cheaper and easier than traditional methods. Changes can be made and a new prototype printed often within hours rather than waiting days, weeks, or months. But it doesn’t stop there: 3D printed clothing is already a reality, even if it’s an expensive reality right now. New Balance is even using 3D printing technology to create shoes custom fitted to a runners feet and running style. As the technology progresses, who knows what you and I might find ourselves wearing that came from a printer instead of a sewing machine.
Early this year, a Swedish supercar manufacturing company named Koenigsegg announced a supercar that utilises many components made with 3D printers. Closer to home, the American company Local Motors announced this month that they have built the “world’s first 3D-printed car, made from a mix of carbon fiber and plastic.”5 The car has only 49 parts in contrast to traditional cars that have about 5,000 parts. Most of those 49 parts came straight from a 3D printer. A few parts—like the tires, suspension, and electric motor—were made with traditional methods. The Strati, as they’re calling it, only goes about 40 miles per hour, and they’re still waiting for approval so that the car will be street legal, but the potential is there.
Even if your next car doesn’t come from a 3D printer, some of its parts might. MARKFORG3D has recently developed a new printer that can create parts with a higher strength-to-weight ratio than 6061-T6 aluminum. The printer is capable of producing continuous carbon fibers that are designed to carry their load down the entire part. Formula 1 cars, rockets, and space shuttles have traditionally been constructed from continuous strand carbon.
3D printers could potentially allow for faster construction with lower costs. It has even been put forward that 3D printing could possibly be used to construct off-Earth habitats using materials found in the native environment where the habitat is to be constructed. For example, the Sitnerhab project is researching the possibility of building a lunar base using 3D printing technology and lunar regolith (or rock) as a base material. Even if we don’t end up using this technology to build on the moon or other planets, we can hopefully use it to create relatively cheap structures in areas of the Earth where it could be difficult to ship or find raw materials suitable for traditional construction.
This one really sounds like something out of Star Trek, but it’s more than just a concept now. While not commonly available, 3DSystems has already developed a line of kitchen-ready 3D printers designed to create custom, edible items. Its printable materials will include sugar, candy, and milk chocolate. You can even buy small sour or mint candies created by one of these machines from Cubify.com.
In my opinion, this is a big one. 3D printing has already been used to create patient-specific implants and devices. Some of these include a titanium pelvis implant, titanium lower jaw implant, and a plastic tracheal splint. Just this year, US-based E-nable designed a prosthetic hand to be printed using 3D printing technology for a child in the UK. The possibilities are seemingly endless. I would think that custom-designed prosthetics would be a far cry more comfortable than most affordable options.
There are even companies researching the use of “bio-printers” to possible create new organs using stem cells harvested from the patient’s blood. China has committed around $500 million to establish 3D printing development institutes. Some of their researchers claim that they have successfully printed human organs using specialised 3D bio-printers. One researcher predicted that fully functional printed organs could be possible as early as 2024.
With 3D printing technology, the future is definitely now! As we move forward, it’s anybody’s guess what 3D printing will be used for next. I’m looking forward to finding out.