The concept for 3D printers has been around since 1974 when Davis E. H Jones spelt out the idea in his New Scientist column. The early 1980s saw the development of early additive manufacturing equipment, and in July 1984, the first of three patents were registered that paved the way for the 3D printing systems that we have today.
The 3D printer that is around today has come a long way since those humble beginnings when it was just an idea in a scientist’s column, and during the coronavirus pandemic, 3D printers have certainly had their time in the spotlight. At the height of the virus in the UK, when PPE was in short supply, those who had access to 3D printers pulled together and helped to create face shields and clever little plastic straps to hold masks in place, helping to keep our doctors and nurses safer and saving their ears from the discomfort of long term mask wearing. So, if ordinary folk with access to a 3D printer can help create PPE at a time of national crisis, it stands to reason that people will think that you can 3D print anything.
So, can you?
You can certainly print most things in 3D, but you cannot print everything…yet. If you have a working template than you can print something out in 3D and the multi jet fusion technology is advanced enough that the items you can produce are not just for show. These are actual working things with a useful purpose. Manufacturers can send templates to people who need a replacement part for something in their machinery that is broken, and they can print a replacement rather than wait for one to be shipped to them. This can prove to be a much quicker solution to a problem that can all-too-often cost big for a company in terms of lost production. This part could be as simple as a screw or a more complex element of the machine.
Once simply used to recreate replica models of vintage cars in a scale of 1:3, or for bringing a child’s drawings to life, 3D modelling has moved on its complexity. It isn’t that long ago that it would have been hard to imagine the process being used to create a replica gun for example, and certainly not one that was capable of firing a bullet. But it can. And it doesn’t stop there, either. 3D printing has proved very useful to the medical profession, creating 3D models of human anatomy that allow them to study the human body in full detail without the need for a cadaver. Perhaps one of the stranger things that is currently being done with 3D is happening in Japan where parents to be are being offered 3D prints of their baby scans -that’s right, your scan photo turned into a 3D model, and while the whole idea seems rather cool some people may consider them a little creepy..
There are a growing number of companies looking at the potentials that are offered by 3D printing. It is a growing industry and a technology that is advancing all the time. Being able to 3D print parts rather than ordering spares and waiting patiently for them to arrive could have huge implications for businesses looking to be more efficient and cut costs in the long term.
The types of materials that can be used with 3D printing is rapidly growing as well giving it even more scope in a wider range of businesses. Tasks can be large or small, from printing a screw to mend a machine to 3D printing a prosthetic limb for a child. We should certainly take note of the latter option; the ability to use 3D printing in the medical world is growing fast, with research teams in the US looking at ways to recreate skin and tissue for medical purposes.
Of course, this potential also brings with it some questions. How far can we take 3D printing in the medical world? will it be possible to create organs at some point in the future? For now, it seems there is plenty of research taking place and 3D printing has many capabilities that are yet to be explored.