While 3D printers were created in the mid-1980s, using a technique called stereolithography, it was not until quite recently that additional much cheaper options for manufacturers dramatically improved.
[Image, right: 3D printers now used by the fashion industry to produce stunning 3D-printed fabrics.]
Today 3D printers are much more affordable and are designed to operate in an office environment, plus they allow designers to design parts in 3D CAD that would be impossible or at least very difficult to manufacture using normal tooling techniques.
For example, the new Airbus A380 contains a hydraulic valve housing in the wings which would require complex (expensive) machining, however with 3D printing the part was designed on achieving the best strength and performance, and not restricted to design-for-manufacture principles.
However, the majority of 3D printing applications in Australia are still for rapid prototyping purposes, but as material quality has improved to more durable engineering plastic with balanced mechanical properties and fine-feature surface resolution, end-use applications are evolving.
This is particularly for Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology, which uses a nylon material. Surface finish for this technology was always an issue, due to the raw powder form, but improved materials have dramatically reduced this surface finish issue.
3D printing offer designers the ability to quickly turn concepts into 3D models or prototypes that require good durability and strength, and allows for rapid design changes.
The technology also allows manufacturers to produce products on demand rather than in large production runs, thereby improving inventory management and reducing warehouse space.
These might include medical parts that require USP Class VI compliance or must be sterilised; complex, thin-walled ducts; enclosures and housings; parts with snap-fits and living hinges, and automotive dashboards, grilles and bumpers.
As well, mining companies in remote locations for example, can fabricate parts using 3D printing that would otherwise be inaccessible to them.
3D printing has the potential to save money and material over traditional manufacturing techniques in which material is cut, drilled, or shaved off, as very little raw material is wasted.
The technology has the potential for consumers to produce their own objects. They could simply download files for printing 3D objects, could be electronic devices, or washing machine parts, in their own homes.
Presently physicians are using 3D printing to make prosthetics, hearing aids, artificial teeth, and bone grafts, as well as replicate models of organs, tumours, and other internal bodily structures from CT scans in preparation for surgery.
In the printed electronics industry, 3D printing technology is being used allowing for the printing of layered circuitry or devices. This may lead to one day users being able to print out a future generation of gadgets from 3D plans rather than buying them.
Already 3D printers are being used in food preparation, to apply items in liquid or paste form such as cheese, icing, and chocolate.
According to renowned printers, scanners, and projectors analyst, Tony Hoffman, the French Culinary Institute has been using a Fab@Home (www.fabathome.org) open-source 3D printer developed at Cornell University to prepare artistic delicacies, and the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has created a 3D food printer called the Cornucopia.
"3D food printers could conceivably even match the Star Trek replicators, found in Starship mess halls throughout the galaxy.
"These fictional food printers can fabricate most any food item on demand. If 3D printing lets doctors someday print a heart or kidney with internal structure, printing a steak or other foods should be a snap–though probably not cost-effective.
"At any rate, we’re likely to see a far greater range of food products made by 3D printers at all levels of the ‘food chain’: food manufacturers, restaurants, and home kitchens," Hoffman said.
Late last year, in a major medical breakthrough, an Australian company developed the world’s first commercial 3D bio-printer, helping organisations working on tissue construction and organ replacement.
Start-up company Organovo and Melbourne based Invetech were awarded the Engineering Innovation Award for their innovative 3D bio-printer.
Industry minister, Senator Kim Carr said the companies are a great example of what innovation can do. "For decades the goal of tissue engineers has been to advance beyond simple cell cultures to creating three-dimensional organs.
"This partnership took just nine months to solve these engineering challenges and design, develop, manufacture and ship the world’s first commercial 3D bio-printer," Carr said.
On the runway
One unexpected industry to recognise the sustainability benefits of 3D printing is the fashion industry, which is increasingly using the technology to produce 3D-printed fabrics.
Designer Jiri Evenhuis, in collaboration with Janne Kyttanen of Freedom of Creation, was one of the first to toy with the idea of using 3D printers to create textiles.
"Instead of producing textiles by the meter, then cutting and sewing them into final products, this concept has the ability to make needle and thread obsolete," Evenhuis said.
3D Systems ‘Freedom of Creation’ designer-researchers are now using software that converts three-dimensional body data into skin-conforming fabric structures.
Readers might think 3D printing has little in common with sustainability for the fashion industry, but the rapid-prototyping process has a number of surprisingly green benefits.
The emerging technology, which uses ultraviolet beams to fuse layers of powdered, recyclable thermoplastic into shape, leaves behind virtually no waste. Its localised production and one-size-fits-all approach also racks up markedly fewer travel miles, requires less labour, and compresses fabrication time to a matter of hours, rather than weeks or months.
On the runway at last year’s Melbourne Spring Fashion Week was Amelia Agosta modelling a sculptural piece.
Inspired by the Architectural style Deconstructivism, the model wanted to achieve sculptural garments that were sturdy but also sculpted to the female body.
3D printing gave her the ability to explore and prototype three dimensional outcomes that cannot be achieved in traditional manufacturing. Steering away from traditional cloth fabrics and breaking free of model making techniques to create an innovative one-off piece.
Agosta worked in collaboration with Natasha Fagg, using 3D body scanning facilities to work on the exact measurements of a female size 6-8 as a template in the 3D modelling software. The piece was complex and time consuming to draw up, however patience and persistence went a long way.
Agosta then contacted 3D Systems RP Consultant – Chris Murray, who identified a number of fabrication issues that he resolved before converting the CAD files into a 3D printable format.
Other issues were: complex geometry design, part must be robust, functionality – disassemble/reassemble, quickly on a model, and fast turn around time.
Murray decided that SLS would be the most suitable process to manufacture the part.
Additional engineering challenges were realised, such as a method to affix the two piece assembly together in a way that was invisible from the outside.
Murray used his innate knowledge of the process and materials to design a suitable mounting plate for the two pieces that would comfortably fit the model and be simple to put together.
The parts were finally loaded into 3D Systems’ new sPro SLS machine and fabricated overnight. The parts were given a high quality finish and painted a flat matte white to match the aesthetics Agosta requested.
"The intricate shapes and sculptural nature of the piece definitely achieved a bold structural silhouette," Murray said.