3D Printing; the next tech disruptor?

 “Yes, I’d like a burger and fries, please. But make sure they’re freshly printed, none of the pre-cooked stuff.”

“Sure, printing it right away, would you like us to print your cutlery as well?”

“Of course”

Wondering if this conversation could be something you hear at a fast food joint, soon or an excerpt of a sci-fi movie? 3D Printing has grown leaps and bounds, in its use, cost and how it has begun to seamlessly integrate into our everyday life. The above mentioned discussion may be too much to digest (pun intended) however believe it or not, ‘Additive Manufacturing’ has come a long way in the past two decades, making its way into key manufacturing processes for its unique capabilities. Let’s have a look at what this element of the 4th Industrial Revolution has to offer, and whether its really the disruptor, it claimed to be when it hits the news in the late 90s!

This technology is very different to the manufacturing process from traditional subtractive; CNC machinery or formative; injection molding technologies. In 3D printing, the system reads a 3D model of an object and then, literally, prints the object layer upon layer.

The late 90’s and rolling into the next millennium, the hype of 3D printing grew further, but with the hardware required for this technology still coming at a cost and being bulky in nature, there was still time for this technology to completely bloom.

As processes have become more efficient, machinery more compact and the understanding of the scope of this technology increase in the past few years, has the time come for 3D Printing to deliver its prophesized potential?

To explore this further, it’s interesting to explore how 3D printing is used for its unique properties, array of ink material and the sectors that can benefit.

Light-weight yet strong

The ability to create parts with a high weight-to-strength ratio is particular appealing for the aerospace industry. 3D printers using polyamide (nylon) or polycarbonates are able to maximize strength while keeping structures lightweight. Furthermore, being able to consolidate multiple and complex parts without a seam make additive manufacturing a preferred choice for key components.

As companies become more confident with 3D printing, experts say we are not far from having entire aeroplanes being printed. Currently large UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are already being produced through additive manufacturing.

Jigsaw puzzle:

In 2014, vehicle manufacturer ‘Local Motors’ released the first fully 3D printed automobile, named ‘Strati’ which means ‘layers’ in Italian. The ability to print in steel as well as other durable metals and materials, allowed the manufacturer to print separate pieces and slot the car into life.

One block at a time:

A Chinese construction company, named WinSun Global was able to put together a six-storey apartment block using only additive manufacturing. They later partnered with Dubai Future Foundation and constructed an office block (20ft high x 120 ft long x 40ft wide) in just 3 months, which would’ve taken several years! The printers used a special ink composed of cement, sand, and fiber as well as a proprietary additive.

Iron Man?

The medical industry has seen a huge interest in 3D printing due to its diverse application. Printing in titanium, and malleable metals has become useful for prosthetics and advancements in bionic limbs. The medics have taken really well to additive manufacturing, with many surgical tools, surgical models for training as well as replacements for body parts can be made, adjusting to the unique requirement of patients. Over 90% of hearing aids sold in USA, consists of parts manufactured using 3D printing. As the range of materials that can be printed expands, the uses and benefits have seen a great response from the medical arena, and made complicated surgeries less risky. Additive manufacturing is helping reduce the probabilities of complications in transplants and other biomedical fields.

Fusion of materials:

The ability to use multiple materials as ink, as well as print diverse shapes without a seam, has made 3D printing challenge traditional manufacturing processes. This is an industry with the biggest implication of 3D printing, especially as the commercial use of such printers because widespread due to affordable hardware and easier interfaces. Additive manufacturing has moved on from just being a form of prototyping to actually being a means to a final product, in a cheaper, more efficient and customizable fashion.

Is this a fad or leap in innovation?

Additive manufacturing has found itself breaking boundaries and norms throughout industries and repositioned itself as a means to high-end final products and not solely for the purpose of prototyping. Many casting businesses in India, such as Bharat Forge, use additive manufacturing for key components/complex components Between subtractive and formative manufacturing, 3D printing has built its own presence due to the unique qualities it brings. For highly specialized and complex products, especially to eliminate the need to consolidate multiple pieces, additive manufacturing plays a key role. It also offers a quick turn around time and the geometry of the item is a constraint.

Future scope of printing?

In commercial use of 3D printing, the ability to now print food using edible material such as dough, and mostly anything that can be pureed, as well as the multitude of materials that can be printed, leave the gates open for innovators to experiment and evolve this technology.

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