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3D Printing

Latest Innovations in 3D printing | proto labs

By: Stephen Dyson, Special Operations Manager – Protolabs

While 3D printing started off as a bit of an oddity in the world of prototype manufacture, it has fast become a credible and prominent production route and is fast becoming the go-to process for many different materials.  That standing is reflected in the sheer innovation that is levelled at it, and it is one of the most heavily invested areas of manufacturing at present, and there is no sign that it will be ending any time soon. The innovation in the concept now covers a huge number of different areas and raises all sorts of possibilities for the future.  Here are some of the latest innovations in 3D printing.

Make it Large.  Up until now, the printing of 3D components in any material has been constrained by what can be fitted within the printer unit itself.  This has led many engineers to cleverly design assemblies that fit together to form complex parts, but that isn’t always an option and becomes increasingly difficult as the process can handle larger parts but the equipment cannot.  However, Dutch company MX3D has looked at the problem in a different way and has come up with a system that ditched all but the printer head, and places that on a robotic arm.

The autonomous unit is able to move using wheels or rails according to the design required and can create huge structures.  The device was originally conceived to ‘print’ new furniture designs but is already being demonstrated as a system that can build even bigger structures, including bridges. The potential for this kind of system is almost limitless.

Printing for All. While printer systems are a fraction of their price compared to only a few years ago, they are still expensive enough to preclude everyday use in schools and educational facilities, denying the next generation of innovators exposure to the potential of these systems.  All that is going to change over the next couple of years as several companies are now actively developing highly cost-effective 3D printing systems, with a view to making the systems commonplace in schools and even homes within a few years. The view is that if young people become familiar with the technology at an early age, then further innovation will follow at an accelerated rate.

By this means, 3D printing is likely to become the major means of constructing parts for schools and the home in just a few years, fuelled by this inexpensive equipment.

Printing Phones.  Not so much the creation of phones by 3D printing but the use of phone apps and the light from a phone’s camera LED to create 3D printed objects.   Professor Jeng-Ywan Jeng from the Mechanical Engineering department of the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology is making huge steps forward in this area.  Using the light from a mobile phone light source to polymerise liquid resins, Professor Jeng sees a huge opportunity to bring down the cost of 3D printing to everyday levels, and with the basic construction materials being so cheap to buy, this is likely to be a major step forward in practical printing.

Highly Personalised Printing. The medical field is potentially one area where 3D printing can have the biggest impact.  While the routine printing of biological material is still in its infancy, there is enormous interest in the production of personalised prosthetics for patients with extreme medical problems.  American company Ekso Bionics is now actively using the precision and flexibility of 3D printing to create the customised fitting of exoskeltons and prosthetics to recipients. With better fitting comes greater stability, aiding the overall mobility of the patient, and giving them much more confidence to move.  The company is already working with paraplegic patients to manufacture bespoke systems that give them back the mobility that is far beyond that afforded by a simple wheelchair.

Printing Hard-use Items.  The development of the SpaceDraco engine for the SpaceX heavy lifter has been a huge success for 3D printing, but in doing so, the company has had to innovate heavily in order to form parts for this highly-stressed application. SpaceX was determined that the majority of the engine system – even the high-temperature parts – should be constructed in this way.  This meant that the company had to investigate the 3D printing of high-temperature materials and the development of new feedstocks that could be sintered to form components that are capable of withstanding rocket engine environments.

About the Author:

Stephen Dyson

Special Operations Manager


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