In Part I of this series, I discussed the history and science of 3D printing. So you may want to read that before proceeding. As a quick review, 3D printers build objects a thin layer at a time primarily from plastic or metal powders, melting them into place one at a time. This week I will move on to discussing the current uses of 3D printing, as well as some potentially exciting future applications.

Currently, the most successful commercial application of 3D printing is the practice of rapid prototyping. As an example, let’s say you were tasked with designing a dashboard for next year’s model of the Chevy Volt and, in addition to it being functional, you want it to look really nice. You’ve got 5 different designs sketched out and want to make a prototype of each one to show to your boss. Without 3D printing, you would need to have five different molds built, one for each of your ideas, and then inject molten plastic into each one to make your prototypes. This is a slow and expensive process. With 3D printing, all you need to do is to enter the five designs into the computer, and the machine will rapidly construct all five of them from plastic powder. This is a fast and inexpensive approach. Once you and your boss agree on the design, then just one mold will be made to mass-produce large numbers of dashboards. 3D printers are not efficient enough to be used in mass production (at least not yet).

Perhaps the most promising potential use of 3D printing is for on-site production of replacement parts. For example, imagine now that our Chevy Volt with our beautiful new dashboard has been in an accident and needs a new bumper. With current technology, you would drive it or tow it to a local body shop. The body shop would order the part from the car manufacturer, wait for it to arrive, and then put the new bumper on. A future body shop with a 3D printer could make the replacement part on site, likely the same day that you brought the car in.

Even more exciting, there are two classes of medical uses for 3D printing, one already in place and another with some fascinating potential. Doctors are currently implanting 3D-printed synthetic bone sections in patients, designed to their exact specifications. This can be a godsend for patients who are in need of reconstructive surgery following an accident or bone resection from removal of a cancerous tumor. Another potential use for 3D printing in medicine is hoped to be the creation of living tissue built up a layer at a time from individual human cells. For example, significant effort is currently ongoing to 3D print a functioning human liver. These synthetic livers would eliminate the necessity for patients to wait for a donated liver while undergoing dialysis.

Let me finish up with some examples of possible future applications of 3D printing.

  • Some time in the relatively near future you will be able to order a 3D-printed shoe which fits your foot exactly. Custom fitted clothing is likely to follow closely on the “heels” of this, with the current focus being women’s swimwear and brassieres.
  • The government of Bahrain has sponsored work constructing synthetic coral reefs made by 3D printing of sandstone particles. This process makes a surface which is more compatible with sea life than other materials.
  • Similar to the example of the car body shop, 3D printing would be quite useful in a space station. In this case, once the printer and the plastic and metal powders were on board, the astronauts could make parts as needed.
  • There are also experiments with 3D-printed food. Potential raw materials for this application include soy protein powder, powered milk, spice powders, gelatin, and vegetable oils. (The sound you just heard was Julia Child turning over in her grave.)

There are many, many other potential applications of 3D printing being explored. As an engineer, I find this technology to be one of the most interesting to have come along in some time. I hope that in the not-too-distant future, many of our fellow North Carolinians are employed in 3D printing-related jobs.

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