Imagine a machine that can make anything appear at the touch of a button. This is one of the themes that you will encounter in popular science fiction such as Star Trek’s “replicator” that uses pure energy to create solid material objects. The idea of a device that can do this has been around for decades, and we actually have a close approximation already. It’s called a 3D printer.
A 3D printer doesn’t convert energy to matter as a Star Trek replicator does, but it can take raw material and rapidly construct a three-dimensional object to exact specifications in mere minutes. These devices have already had a big impact on industries, although, with the exception of hobbyists, they still have yet to penetrate the at-home consumer market. Regardless, some scientists predict that consumers will soon prefer to print out products at home rather than have them delivered or buy them in stores.
What exactly is a 3D printer?
The common 3D printers that are used by industries today use a process called “additive manufacturing.” These machines create objects by laying sheets of material from the bottom up in many repetitions to build a complete 3D object. It is similar to the way a skyscraper is constructed floor-by-floor from the ground up.
There are many advantages of building objects this way, especially when creating prototypes or small-scale models for design purposes. One advantage is, because of the speed that prototypes can be printed out directly from the design workstation, you can combine the design phase of a project with the prototype phase. This allows designers to observe structural or aesthetic flaws in a real object rather than having to imagine it or visualize it on a flat screen.
Another advantage of additive construction in industry is that you can print out a hollow object without wasting any material. Traditionally, hollow objects have been created with solid objects that have to be hollowed out. This entails extra work, energy expenditure, negative environmental impact and wasted materials.
3D printers are changing the world
These machines have had a big impact on a variety of industries for decades in ways that would probably surprise you. One of the most intuitive uses for 3D printers is to create prototypes or small models in architecture and other types of structural design. This also enables several prototypes to be made in order to improve designs before the production phase.
3D printers also produce better prosthetics for people who are missing teeth, limbs or other body parts. In the medical field, 3D printing has become more sophisticated. The devices are now capable of printing organic transplant materials for skin grafts. New developments will soon enable printing of functioning organs out of living flesh rather than plastic or metal.
With the rise of self-driving cars, the number of car accidents is expected to become almost nonexistent, which will be wonderful, but this will also cause a shortage of donor organs. Rapid development is occurring in the field of “organogenesis,” which is 3D printing of organs, to meet the challenge ahead. This will eliminate the need for patients to wait for organs donated from the deceased, and printed organs will be genetically matched to patients so that rejection will no longer be a surgical risk.
Another impact of 3D printing is in the construction field. Low-cost houses can rapidly be built with large-scale printers. These are having a positive impact in areas of extreme poverty where large populations are homeless. 3D printing also provides advances in affluent home design or advanced business and municipal buildings. With these printers, designers can explore more interesting and innovative aesthetics and energy-saving features.
The advantages of 3D printing in manufacturing have caused a growth in the technology to the point where supply chains that don’t incorporate it in their processes are becoming a minority. Industry analysts predict that the 3D printing industry will reach a value of $41 billion by 2026.