The Invisible, Widespread World of 3D Printing

You probably know what 3D printing is—but I am willing to bet you don’t know how often it touches your daily life

Take your smartphone. Even if your phone doesn’t contain 3D printed parts, it contains parts made with an injection mold that was itself possibly 3D printed.

3D printing shows us how small innovations can have a ubiquitous impact. Today, manufacturers rely on low-cost, additive manufacturing materials for tens of thousands of parts that the average person interacts with every single day. Your car is one example. The number of car parts you touch made with 3D printed injection moulds is considerable, from the armrest to the steering wheel to the button you press to change the radio station.

From kitchen appliances to gaming consoles to shoes, some of the parts that comprise these items are now made with 3D printed injection moulds – and made quickly. It’s now possible to design and manufacture new products in a matter of days rather than weeks or months, at a fraction of the cost of traditional manufacturing methods.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that 3D printing has changed our lives—with increasingly visible and impactful changes to come. In the western U.S., for instance, firefighters could soon be battling fierce wildfires with drones that are 3D printed with innovative materials that enable the drone body to withstand even the most intense heat. These materials are ultra-tough and durable while retaining a very high strength-to-weight ratio. Light as they are, the materials are tremendously resilient, so the drone can continue to operate even if singed by flames.

The future is now

With next-generation materials like these, 3D printing innovators are taking creativity to new levels in a wide range of fields. One area I am particularly excited about is the medical field.

The functionality of prosthetics is dramatically increasing thanks to next-generation 3D printing processes and materials. These include dynamic legs with improved shock absorption, carbon-fiber foot blades, and bionic arms with nimble fingers. It’s all possible thanks to modern 3D printing platforms.

Indeed, with 3D printing, the possibilities are seemingly limitless. Remember the Bionic Woman, whose right arm and legs were replaced with cybernetic limbs that endowed her with superpowers? Or Luke Skywalker, whose saber-severed hand was replaced with a robotic one that looked and performed like the original? These are no longer the stuff of science fiction. With 3D printing, companies are now making limbs with sensors that detect muscle movements and react, such as arms that can high five, fist bump, and pick up small objects.

Already, dual-head 3D printers that make use of multi-modality materials are pushing the boundaries of what we assume to be the limits of the possible. For example, in a prosthetic, you want an appendage that is soft and comfortable to the touch but durable and functional enough to carry out a range of tasks and movements. High-performance multi-modality materials enable limbs that can support the mechanics of standing, running, and jumping while providing comfort to the wearer. In this area, 3D printing has leapfrogged traditional manufacturing technologies to offer capabilities that were previously not possible.

New materials make space flight more feasible

The space industry is another field where 3D printing is making its mark. Complex components and intricate spacecraft parts that once were exorbitantly expensive can now be made at low cost thanks to 3D printing. Better still, they can be made at far lighter weights, which is a critical factor considering that it costs around $10,000 to launch 1 pound of material into space. That means launching a 200-pound astronaut into space costs $2 million. It follows that if 3D printing can bring down the weight of spacecraft, space exploration becomes much more feasible.

With innovations in additive manufacturing materials, space agencies will be able to design lighter parts and robust components to perform with strength and reliability. The previous generation of NASA space shuttles incorporated over 2.5 million moving parts. Reducing the number and size of parts in the next generation of spacecraft will simultaneously and dramatically reduce weight and complexity, along with the cost of going to space.

3D printing opens new frontiers

The 3D printing industry is now working to embed electronics inside 3D printed materials and parts. Imagine semiconductor chips and smart sensors embedded directly in the materials used to make a drone.

In the not-too-distant future, a company like Amazon will have a fleet of delivery drones with any manner of smart sensors embedded inside, that collect data in real-time. The drone will be able to monitor the wear on its own parts and know when replacement parts are needed, avoiding accidents and mechanical failures.

3D printing is not making headlines in the way it did ten years ago. But behind the scenes, 3D printing has continued to evolve rapidly. Innovators are now using it in many fields to solve global challenges and change our future for the better.

About the Author

Brandon Sweeney is Executive Vice President of R&D, Materials at Essentium, Inc. Essentium is fundamentally changing how things are made. As innovators in both materials and production platforms, we are disrupting traditional manufacturing processes by bringing speed and strength together, at scale, with a no compromise material set. We are committed to creating industrial solutions for the world’s top manufacturers and bridging the gap between 3D printing and machining.