The idea of 3D printing seems almost magical, like the transporters used in episodes of Star Trek.
In the 3D printing process, also called additive manufacturing, a machine translates a computer design into a physical object. The object is created by a “printer,” which lays thin layers of material on top of each other until the object is complete.
The process, pioneered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1990s, is used for creating aircraft and auto prototypes, prosthetics, medical models, jewelry and art. As the printing process improves, researchers are developing a variety of print materials, including plastics, metal, glass, ceramics and even living cells.
Here are 10 examples of how 3D printing is being used:
One of the most well-known products made with 3D printing technology is Invisalign, a clear, plastic device used to straighten teeth. After molds are taken of a patient’s teeth, a dentist or orthodontist decides how the teeth should be moved. A 3D printer builds a series of devices that gradually correct teeth alignment.
That’s right. According to Forbes magazine, a doctor at Wake Forest University has printed organ “scaffolds” that are then coated with the patient’s living cells. The implication is that people awaiting organ transplants may instead be able to get replacement organs generated with their own cells.
Planning complicated surgeries
In another example of a medical application, surgeons are able to use the digital images created by magnetic resonance imaging to print models of tissue that needs to be repaired. The models enable surgeons to precisely plan each step of the surgery.
Before a recent Baltimore Orioles baseball game, a 5-year-old girl threw the ceremonial first pitch with a prosthetic hand made with a 3D printer. In Brazil, veterinarians were able to build a prosthetic beak for a toucan that had flown into a building and broken the top half of the beak.
At the Oklahoma State University Veterinary School, students came up with a way to build models of canine skeletons for classroom learning. The models are cheaper than obtaining actual skeletons.
Ford Motor Co. works with start-up company Carbon3D, which provides printers that create prototypes for new parts. Printing the prototypes from a computer design is far less expensive than using a machine shop to build prototypes. In fact, Google Ventures recently led a $100-million round of funding for Carbon3D.
As with the auto industry, many other manufacturers are using 3D printing to create prototypes. The printers can be used to create sand-casted molds for machine and engine parts.
It didn’t take long for someone to figure out how to design a handgun that can be printed in parts with a 3D printer. The plans are available online. The guns are not currently very durable, but that could change.
In Maine, window-coverings maker RollEase has a research facility in Brunswick that uses 3D printing to create new components and products, according to an article on MaineBiz.com.
Clothing and jewelry
A fashion design graduate in Israel has created an entire line of 3D-printed clothing that you could print at home. Here’s a video about her work: https://youtu.be/3s94mIhCyt4
There are lots of other examples of 3D-printed products, including eyeglass frames, camera lenses, rocket engine parts, shoes and even stethoscopes.
3D printing is booming, and more and more educational institutions, like the Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, are offer computer-aided design programs to prepare students to work with this growing manufacturing technology.