The Potential of 3D Printing

The Potential of 3D Printing

5:10pm Dec 19, 2014
3D Printing on display at SciWorks in Winston-Salem, NC
Christy Ferguson.

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem.

3D printing was developed in the 1980s as a way of making objects out of resin. An object is created in a computer, then built one layer at a time. There are three main types of 3D printing. In one the object is created from within a vat of liquid resin, this is called stereolithography, or SLA. Laser Centering is another method that uses a laser to build an object out of a powdered material. FDM, or Fused Deposition Modeling, is the most common for home use. Melted plastic is extruded from a nozzle and put down in layers. This technology may be on the cusp of revolutionizing the way way we make things.

If you start with the industrial revolution, it was transformative because suddenly power was free; you could multiply the power of your muscles without added cost using a steam engine. If you go to the Internet Age, information was suddenly free. We could get all the answers we needed on our cell phones in our pockets in a few seconds. With 3D printing, the reason it's so transformative is because complexity is free.

That’s Daniel Miller, engineer, Entrepreneur, and 3D printing enthusiast. 3D printing offers a less expensive way to develop new items. If you print it, and you don’t like it, you can redesign it and print it again. There’s no need to purchase more materials or retool your machines.

With 3D printing, there is virtually no waste. If you start with a powder for a centering process, you lay down the powder and center it with the laser and build it up additively, and at the end the powder that wasn’t centered you just reuse in the next print job.

3D printing has already found a home in the the world of medicine.

There are over 40,000 people walking around right now with 3D printed titanium hip inserts. The Invisalign braces that you see that are the clear plastic, those are 3D printed. There are over 4,000 spine implants that have been 3D printed, and printed in such a way that bone can kind of grow around it, and cartilage can graft to it.

How will 3D printing affect manufacturing?

You hear talk about who will be the winners and losers in 3D printing, and I think where we will see a lot of the pain as we transform to this new type of manufacturing is in the areas where people currently get paid to make things using traditional methods. Those areas where you need to turn out a hundred thousand or a million parts will continue to hold on and be more insulated. Areas where they want to customize the end product for their consumers, those areas will start to adopt 3D printing very quickly. So, what you run into with 3D printing is even in areas where you don’t need the precision that you might in some other areas, the machine is limited to only deposit at a certain rate. In a traditional manufacturing machine, if you wanted to machine away a very large amount of material, you can go very quickly in some areas that are very important, but when you get down to the precise areas you can slow down and be more precise. Where you can adapt 3D printing to outpace or be faster than traditional methods is that you can set up parallel machines. Once you digitize that model and send it to a 3D printer, if you want to make things a hundred times faster, you just need a hundred machines, literally. You don’t need a hundred more operators. You don’t need a hundred more sets of material. You start with the basic material and you just hit copy.

As a transformative technology, 3D printing offers new ways to approach problems.

Once the technology gets in peoples’ minds and they get exposed to it, it's not just the fact that you can make a widget a different way, it's that you’ll think about a problem a different way. There are lots of examples right now of where surgeons around the world have used 3D printing to make a model of a certain part of anatomy of a patient before they go in and do a surgery. And making that 3D model allows them to see what kind of risks there are involved, what where they’ll have to position their tools, how they’ll approach the surgery. It has literally made surgeries that before were going to be impossible or too risky to approach now possible. There are patients out there that, even though they didn’t receive a 3D printed implant or a 3D printed tool wasn’t used on them, they’ve benefited from 3D printing because it allowed the surgeons to understand the problem in a new way.

3D technology has been further developed and championed in a global, open source community which you can tap into at reprap.org.

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of UFOmusic.com. 

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